Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Heart of Palm

by Laura Lee Smith

The debut novel from a writer of wry humor and warm humanity, Heart of Palm is an indelible portrait of a town and one dysfunctional, unforgettable family choosing between the enfolding familiarity of what it knows, and the promise of the new.

  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 496
  • Publication Date April 08, 2014
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2103-5
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 496
  • Publication Date April 11, 2013
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2102-8
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $25.00

About The Book

Arla Bolton had been warned never to marry a Bravo. From the country-club set in genteel St. Augustine, Florida, Arla gave it all up to marry Dean Bravo and move to Utina, best known for the trade in Palm Sunday palms and moonshine. Opportunity has passed by both Utina and the Bravos for decades, but Arla was young and in love and blind to how her choice would change her life. Now Dean is gone and she shares a ramshackle waterfront house with her willful daughter, Sofia, nursing her losses and wondering if Dean’s doing the same wherever he is. Frank, her dutiful middle son, manages the family restaurant without complaint, while he dreams of escaping the Florida heat to cool mountain rivers, and dreams of his brother Carson’s wife, Elizabeth, whom he’s loved since adolescence.

In short, the Bravos are due a break—and when the phone rings one fourth of July, it seems a developer wants to bring progress to Utina at last, provided the Bravos agree. But are they ready? Ready or not, it seems the phone call has set off a chain reaction. Two surprise arrivals, one late-blooming love story, one hedge fund scam, a truck full of melted Key lime pies, and a bittersweet reckoning or two later, Heart of Palm reveals what happens when opportunity knocks, tempers ignite, and long-buried secrets are unearthed.

Tags Literary


“[A] fine, funny first novel . . . A heaping dose of Southern soul with a whole lot of chutzpah thrown in.” —Gina Webb, Atlanta Journal Constitution

“An incandescent first novel set in the small town of Utina, Florida, whose inhabitants struggle to balance tradition and progress.” —Abbe Wright, O Magazine

“Remarkable . . . Heart of Palm is Smith’s first novel, and it’s a knockout. With its knowing but sweet-natured humor, its flawed and believable characters, its convincing depiction of small-town life, its delicious little plot twists and its insight about the human heart, it reminded me often of the novels of Richard Russo.” —Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times

“Smith’s debut novel exudes authenticity. . . . She turns a phrase with wit. . . . Writ[ten] with agility and empathy.” —Publishers Weekly

“Intelligence, heart, wit . . . Laura Lee Smith has all the tools and Heart of Palm is a very impressive first novel.” —Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls

Heart of Palm . . .will leave you crying, laughing, and longing for a bygone era.” —Florida Travel + Life

“I could feel the heat, the glare off the Intracoastal. Like a sandspur, Heart of Palm sticks with you, drawing blood.” —Rita Mae Brown, author of Southern Discomfort and Rubyfruit Jungle

“A spirited Southern family saga.” —Tara Quinn, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Deep, compassionate, and often heartbreakingly funny. . . . Smith is a brilliant writer, and Heart of Palm brims with lush vitality, loss, and desire.” —Julianna Baggott, author of Pure and The Prince of Fenway Park

“A big, engrossing and very Southern look at a family in turmoil, Heart of Palm is made to be read on a veranda during the steamy summer months.” —Randy Cordova, Arizona Republic

“A complex novel, finely developed with multifaceted characters. . . . Compelling. . . . [A novel] that will stay with the reader long after turning the last page.” —Nancy Carty Lepri, New York Journal of Books

“What an extravagantly and engagingly flawed family this is! Smith is an enchanter casting her spell with lyrical prose, evocative details, and spellbinding characters. She explores familial chaos, reckless behavior, and hopeless love with grace, intelligence, and tenderness. She gives me what I long for in fiction: compassion and provocation. What talent, what nerve, what a wondrous and spellbinding story. Trust me, these Bravos will haunt your dreams.” —John Dufresne, author of Requiem, Mass. and Louisiana Power and Light

“From the lyrical opening that sets up this story, Smith’s voice moves to an earthy voice grounded in the tradition of our great yarn-spinners, giving us a Florida Cracker family saga rich in humor and vivid characters who are all-too-realistically violent, crazy, hilarious, big-hearted, and tragic. This is a heartily ambitious novel that’s also a real page-turner, a real story with real people in a place rendered in such palpable detail you feel you know it as well as the people who live there.” —Brad Watson, author of The Heaven of Mercury and Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives

“Well-developed characters confronted by an undercurrent of change propel this unhurried family saga. Smith is a careful, detailed writer who assembles big, bold, well-drawn scenes—moments from the everyday lives of the Bravos that resonate with deeper insights into how personal regrets and longings shape the fates of all involved.” —Kathleen Gerard, Shelf Awareness (online)

“Smith skillfully sets multiple stories in motion, most, it seems, designed to showcase the vanity of human wishes. Smith is a kind and understanding creator, and even the most venal of her characters, we see, is just trying to get by—and usually not succeeding. . . . A lot of fun.” —Kirkus Reviews

Heart of Palm is pure North Florida. . . . Derelict dads, battling brothers and flawed, beautiful women inhabit this lovely story with its dysfunctional family, just one generation removed from the Snopes, Ewells and Lesters of Southern literary lore. . . . [Smith] is a capable writer and has delivered an enjoyable story.” —Tim O’Connell, The Florida Times-Union


He wanted her all the time, every day, every minute. He drank like a fiend. He brawled at the Cue & Brew. Then he spent a night in the drunk tank and drove back to wait outside her bedroom window on New Year’s Day.

“Marry me,” he said, when she came out to the lawn.

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “I’m seventeen.”

“Marry me,” he said on Valentine’s Day, and she rolled her eyes.

“Marry me,” he said on St. Pat’s. ‘marry me. Marry me. Marry me.” He was nearly weeping. He slid his hand between her thighs, pressed his face against her chest. She pulled away and looked at him for a long moment.

“Okay,” she said, finally. “But get a steady job.”

And he did, too, signing on full-time at the Rayonier paper mill up in Fernandina, where he’d worked intermittently before but now had a reason to show up regular. He quit drinking by midnight every night, and got up early. He drove fifty miles north every day.

He clocked in and clocked out. Inside the plant, he lowered himself into the boilers to spray them with sealant, descended eight hours a day into a hot, hellish dark chasm swirling with dispersants and adherents and God knows what else, but it was worth it, holy Jesus it was worth it, to have Arla.

Reading Group Guide

1. Describe the town of Utina, Florida. What is its interaction with the outside world? “Utina, inauspiciously named for the chief of a tribe of doomed Timucuan Indians, had been known historically for two things: palms and booze” (p. 10). How much has changed by the time of the novel? What is the narrator’s attitude toward the community?

2. Which characters do you find most reliable in their reflections and reactions? Are these people always honest about themselves?

3. What is it about the people of Utina that makes them so vivid and memorable? They may not triumph, but they persevere. Which ones are most full of life, passion, and imagination? Fury, lunacy, blame, and love intermingle in wild ways. Give some examples.

4. Who suffers most from guilt, and for what? Who appears unscathed by regret? Does this apparent immunity last through the book? Is blame effective in deflecting guilt? Talk about Dean, Frank, and Carson in particular.

5. Pick out some passages about the natural world that reveal beauty or solace, or that challenge the characters. The water is never far from their lives, at Aberdeen or in town. “There were many people in Utina . . . who believed that the back deck of Uncle Henry’s on a July night at sunset was the prettiest place on the face of Earth, with the light shining off the current and the fiddler crabs doing their tango down by the waterline” (p. 53). Barred owls are heard often, almost like guardian spirits. Which parts of the natural setting did you find most telling? Ironically, some of the beautiful places can also be catastrophic, such as the lake in Winter Haven and the dunes at the beach. How does human folly stain these places?

6. What is the condition of Aberdeen and what does it tell us about the people living there? Look at the outrageous Steinway dispute, the rampant climbing vines, “the landfill” that is Arla’s room. What does the old house represent to each character? Does it fulfill a destiny of its own by the end?

7. What kinds of parenting do we see in the book? Are there judgments about fathers’ behavior as compared to that of mothers? Does anyone grow as a parent?

8. How do class distinctions operate in this Florida community? On what are they based? Do you see shifts in classes? What are some of the cultural markers for people like the Boltons or for Maya? What shreds of gentility does Arla try to cling to, at least for Sofia? Who calls the Bravo boys “white trash”?

9. The Boltons were able to give Arla a privileged life, but “inside lived three people who were nothing, nothing at all, like a family” (p. xvi). Arla “knew about despair, and about the way her mother stared at her hands when her father was speaking” (p. xvi). Compare this group with the Bravos and their inexorable bond, as lacerating as it often is. After their fracases, Carson, Frank, and Dean converge, “the three of them sitting together in a dingy clinic waiting room, bruised and battered and barely able to stand, barely able to speak to each other, and yet bound together, somehow, with something that might have been love but was different—harder, tighter, stronger, even, than love. It wasn’t love, in fact. It was family” (p. 399).

10. Out of their “backwoods genetic stew” (p. 171), which included their ancestor Farragut’s “pithy, if boneheaded, battle cry: ‘damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead,”” the Bravos emerge as brave, stubborn, proud, and destructive (p. xi). If they are not always quick to pick fights, they certainly never turn away from them. Their ongoing feud with Do-Key, the hapless local police officer, takes on grand comic proportions. Look at the alligator caper for lunatic delight. “Oh, it was beautiful. Epic. The best move they’d ever pulled” (p. 22). Look later at the ghost of this alligator on the officer’s steering wheel in the hilariously compromised antique car. Imagination they have; but how does this antic, hell-driven power lead to calamity, especially with Dean and Carson in separate disasters?

11. “A costly delicacy indeed,/when to get to the heart you must kill the tree” (epigraph). How does this irony cast light on the novel?

12. Dean and Arla’s marriage was a whirlwind event, a perfect princess and her cavalier outlaw. Is it doomed from the start? Why? It is purely misfortune, or is it the natures of Arla and Dean? What were some high points for them? How did they each try to hold on? What do we make of their late reunion? Are there any marriages in this book worth fighting for?

13. Death recurs in the book, from animals to main characters. Family members are haunted by randomly lost pets. Give examples. Ghosts appear in many forms. Will remains a central character, to whom? How is Arla’s death symbolic of how she lived? Apart from her six-foot height and her rare beauty, Arla was a larger-than-life legend. Talk about this bold, loony, exasperating phenomenon. How is her death both a loss and a gift to her family?

14. Before Arla dies, “confusion was becoming a near-physical ailment, a nagging discomfort. She was sick of it. . . . So what did Aberdeen really matter? What was a house, anyway, in a world where nobody was who you thought they were, not even yourself?” (p. 342). Do other characters suffer from confusion about identity? To Dean’s questioning at the end, Frank says, “I don’t hate my brother. . . . I just think we’re not who we thought we were. Any of us” (p. 439).

15. What are some of the rebirths in the story? Were you surprised by some of the twists of fortune? Various characters save others at some point. Who are they?

16. How is the Bravo Multi-Fund an inciting force in the push to sell out to Cryder and his company? How is Christine Hughes central to Carson’s disintegration?

17. Dean’s return is a bombshell to the family. What precipitates it? What are their reactions to seeing him after twenty years? How do you think he handles re-entry? Has he changed essentially as a person? What were the events that inevitably led to his leaving his home years ago? Despite his demons and illness, how has he retained a spark of energy and a sense of style?

18. Talk about the distances between parents and children, and between siblings. Is there hope by the end that some of these chasms might be bridged or at least understood? By whom?

19. How do characters face down despair, some better than others? Who, ultimately, do you see as the most resilient ones?

20. How is weather a metaphor for psychological climate? Utina is a town where the Florida heat descends “like a guillotine,” where one person feels she is encased in Tupperware. What are some memorable instances of the suffocating heat? Does the weather ever seem to be a benevolent force?

21. In this tropical effusion of growth, nature can seem threatening. One mock-epic battle is that of the banker (Frank’s neighbor) against the palmetto. And there is the snaking hyacinth clogging the waterway. And at one point, Frank, hurting, feels “grief, for people and for places, a sadness threading stubbornly around his heart, like the creeping jasmine of Utina” (p. 414). Are there other examples of nature’s threats?

22. Checkered pasts abound in the story: Dean’s brother, Huff, Dean himself, Tip, Biaggio—all have served time, and the threat of prison time haunts Carson after his Ponzi scheme. Are there other kinds of imprisonment for the characters?

23. ‘mac was an anomaly, likeable in spite of himself” (p. 66). Does this sentence apply to anyone else? Minor characters lend insight into main characters, provide humor and local color, and vary the story’s angle of vision. Sometimes they exemplify moral standards that shift attitudes. Can you explore some of the range of minor characters in the novel?

24. Utina is destined to change dramatically. What are the chances of success after the new development is built with its marina, condos, mall, and chain stores? Is it possible the razing of the old life will be a kind of purification, forcing people to find new paths? How do you think each of the main characters views the demise of Aberdeen and Uncle Henry’s? Apocalypse? Nostalgia? Salvation? How do you feel about the end of these institutions? What do you predict for Sofia, Biaggio, Carson, Frank, Elizabeth, Mac, and others? “It’s time. . . . I’ve waited long enough” is a recurrent thought. What does Frank mean by it at the end?

Suggestions for further reading:

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell; Beloved by Toni Morrison; The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr; Father of the Rain by Lily King; The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis; The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls; Annabel by Kathleen Winter; Water from the Well by Myra McLarey; Fun Home by Alison Bechdel; Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson; Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates; Peace Like a River by Leif Enger; American Pastoral by Philip Roth; Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg; The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler; Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Guide by Barbara Putnam

Author Q&A

Q: Where did HEART OF PALM come from? What inspired the story?

A: It may have started with the house. My grandmother had a house like Aberdeen, and all my life I wanted to write a story centered on it. So I created a house just like it—right down to the corner turret and the Tang on the kitchen counter. Then I started filling it with people and giving them problems to deal with: martial strife, financial ruin, loneliness, jealousy, guilt. Many years ago, an old friend of my husband’s lost his brother, who was hit by a car and killed on a road like the one that leads into Utina. The story always haunted me. How does a family survive a tragedy like that? How do parents keep going after a child dies? I’ve been taught that writers should write about their greatest fears, about the things that keep us up at night. It was very difficult to write that part of the story. But I wanted to see what would happen if I handed a loss like that to the Bravos. I wanted to see if they could survive it.

Q: Is Utina a real place?

A: No, but it resembles a place called Palm Valley, north of St. Augustine. Like Utina, Palm Valley was known historically for its palm trade and its moonshine. It doesn’t have a town center or a main street like Utina. It’s more rural, or at least it used to be, but it’s close to the beach and people with money started to take notice. Years ago, I watched when Palm Valley started to become developed, and I saw some of the families who had been there for years struggle with displacement. The basic seed of the book’s conflict started there. The word “Utina” came to me while I was researching the Native American Timucua tribes of Northeast Florida. Utina was a tribal chief, but he and the rest of Timucuans were doomed by the influx of European development. It seemed like to a good name to echo what was happening to the Bravos and to their town.

Q: This book features a large cast of characters. Do you have a favorite?

A: I spent so much time with these people that I started to feel like they were a second family. Which is to say that I love them dearly but that doesn’t mean they’re all equally pleasant to hang out with. Frank is probably the character who is most similar to me—reliable, dutiful, all that. I wouldn’t say I liked him the best, but I trusted him and I came to rely on him to chart the course for the narrative. Arla really spoke to me, probably because there have been some very strong but secretly vulnerable matriarchs in my extended family, women who drive their children crazy but who would lay down their lives for any one of them. It’s funny, but in early drafts Sofia didn’t even have a voice—she was just a peripheral character. My editor Amy Hundley and my agent Judith Weber both pushed me to develop Sofia further, and I’m so grateful to them. Sofia’s chapters became some of my favorites in the book. Biaggio, of course, is true blue, and I have great fondness for Mac Weeden. But no, I don’t have a favorite character. I love them all—even Carson, even Dean. (I actually secretly believe Dean would be the most fun to party with.)

Q: The book features some funny scenes, but also some very sad moments. How do you balance those?

A: Effectively, I hope. It’s challenging to take a reader from tragedy to comedy and do it convincingly, but I think these shifts ring true for readers because real life can do that to us. We’ve all been there—the moment when you recognize something absurd in a very dark moment, and you can’t help but laugh. Humans are complex creatures; we can’t always experience just one emotion at a time. Life is messier than that. I’ve written some pretty dark short stories, but I don’t think I could sustain a purely despairing mood for an entire novel. Humor is important to me. It makes fiction feel authentic, I think.

Q: Can you tell me about your writing process?

A: I write in the morning, mostly. I have a family and a job, so I get up very early and try to write before the day gets underway. If I can spare a weekend day, I take that, too. I’ve had the luxury of a few “writing vacations’ in which I take off and stay someplace all alone for a few days and do nothing but write and think. Those blocks of time are incredible. I get lonely, but the isolation pushes me so far inside my own head that something pivotal usually occurs—I get an important scene down, or I discover a plot connection I’d been missing. But for me, one of the most important parts of the writing process is note-taking. I’m constantly collecting pieces of information: a snippet of dialogue, a phrase on a t-shirt, an item on a menu. Days or weeks later, these tiny pieces of data can lead me in directions I don’t expect. I carry a little notebook, but I also use the voice memo app on my iPhone. My memory stinks, so when I finally sit down to look at the notebook or listen to the iPhone notes, I’m always surprised by what I find. “Oh, yeah! That woman coloring her hair in the library restroom—what’s her story?”

Q: What authors inspire and influence you?

A: There are so many. I’m interested in writers who surprise me, who make me laugh and put the book down, saying: no, he didn’t! Sherman Alexie and George Saunders fall into this category. I also like a slow, dense pace in a novel, a patient and solid sense of storytelling, so for this reason I love Richard Russo, William Trevor and Ann Tyler. The more I read Jennifer Egan the more I admire her—what a powerhouse. To study voice, I often look back at books by Richard Ford and Don DeLillo. And then there are those authors I first read years ago that probably shaped my love of fiction to begin with: Hurston, Stegner, Morrison, Dickens, Twain, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, O’Conner. I’m sure I’m leaving some out.

Q: Do you consider yourself a Southern writer?

A: Yes and no. I was born in New Jersey and lived there until I was eleven. Then I lived with my family in South Florida for years before I eventually settled in North Florida. All these places are very different from each other. In many ways, North Florida is more ‘Southern,” meaning it retains many of the traditions and cultural tics of the Old South, while South Florida is more “Northern” because it hosts so many people who have relocated from colder climates. So to answer the question, I think I bring a pretty wide range of regional observations to my writing. I’m most at home in the South and feel most connected here, but I’d like to think my writing is not simply about a place. HEART OF PALM, in particular, is about a family. Where they live is important, and the environment certainly adds to the story’s conflicts. But I think Frank and Arla and the rest of the Bravos would have similar struggles if they lived in any other part of the world. I’m influenced by Southern culture, but I don’t think I’m defined by it. I don’t say “ya’ll” that much, though it happens once in a while. It’s a very useful word.