Bookshelf: ‘Reunion Beach’ honors the late Dorothea Benton Frank

Author Dorothea “Dottie” Benton Frank. Contributed by William Morrow/HarperCollins
Author Dorothea “Dottie” Benton Frank. Contributed by William Morrow/HarperCollins

By all accounts, Dorothea Benton Frank had a personality so big and a life force so strong that her death following a short illness in fall 2019 left many of her friends and fans reeling.

A New York Times bestselling author of 20 novels, Frank was South Carolina’s reigning queen of the beach read. Every spring she released a new novel, many named after the state’s coastal communities: “Shem Creek.” “Folly Beach.” “Sullivan’s Island.” “Isle of Palms.” And every year she went on an epic book tour across the South, which she called the “Perspiration Tour.” Swarms of fans would greet her along the way, some bearing gifts, like the one who always brought her tomatoes from Johns Creek, which Frank said were the best she’d ever tasted.

“She just loved meeting people,” said Carrie Feron, her longtime editor at Harper Collins. “She had endless patience for taking photographs with each and every one.”

Frank’s fans were legion, but so were her friends. Many of them are writers who adored Dottie, as they called her, for her gregarious nature, her witty humor and her warm, Southern hospitality.

“Dottie, when she loves, she didn’t love you a little bit,” said Patti Callahan, author of “Surviving Savannah.” “If she loved you, she loved you big. You were part of her family. She checked on you. She helped your kids. She gave you advice, even if you didn’t want it. She was such a big spirit.”

Frank’s last book was “Queen Bee,” published in 2019. But according to Feron, Frank already had her next book planned out. She was going to call it “Reunion Beach,” and it was inspired by her 50th high school reunion, which she had recently attended.

“There was going to be a reunion with people from high school, and she was going to compare a lot of the high school characters to various kinds of birds of prey that are found in South Carolina, which I thought was a hilarious idea,” said Feron.

Unfortunately, Frank never got to write that book. So, in honor of the author’s memory, Feron solicited stories inspired by Frank from her writer friends for an anthology appropriately called “Reunion Beach” (Harper Collins, $27.99). Published in April, it includes submissions from Callahan, Elin Hilderbrand, Mary Alice Monroe and Cassandra King Conroy, among others.

Contributed by Harper Collins
Contributed by Harper Collins

Callahan’s story “Bridesmaids” is about a divorced woman who invites the bridesmaids from her first, failed nuptials to a reunion at the beach to help her decide whether to accept a marriage proposal from her new love interest.

“The main character, Beatrice, paints birds,” said Callahan. “She assigned a bird to each of her friends back in college, and they each have bird nicknames. That’s how I wove what Dottie had meant to do in the story.”

It’s a sweet story about second chances and the bonds of friendship.

In a series of essays, cookbook author Nathalie Dupree writes about her first experiences eating and preparing French cuisine, including a hilarious story about her attempt to cook a bucket of snails that get loose and infest her boyfriend’s kitchen.

Dupree also tells a story about encouraging Frank to include recipes in her books. The novelist was a consummate cook, and food often figured prominently in her scenes. Frank took Dupree’s advice, but somewhere in the publishing process, a typo got inserted into a recipe for pound cake. As a result, Frank was inundated with reader complaints. She swore she would never again include a recipe in one of her books. Dupree rights that wrong by providing the corrected recipe in “Reunion Beach.”

In “Postcards from Heaven,” Adriana Trigiani, The New York Times bestselling author of “Tony’s Wife,” imagines Frank in heaven, running into her longtime friend, Pat Conroy, at a dive bar called Halo. Over whiskey for him and vodka for her, they continue their earthbound debate over which is the superior way to bake cornbread, in a skillet or a pan. They determine a bake-off is in order and set out to find a judge. The ideal candidate materializes when food writer Julia Reed, who died last year, appears. It is a hilarious but bittersweet fantasy about the afterlife of our dreams.

Many of Frank’s novels began with an original poem by Marjory Wentworth, named poet laureate of South Carolina in 2003. She’s written a new, elegiac poem for “Reunion Beach” that shares the same title. Also included are some of the poems from Frank’s books, including a stanza from “The Sound of Your Own Voice” that appeared in “Full of Grace.”

“The weight of love is the heaviest burden / you have learned to carry. / In the silence of the heavens, / it’s a dream that wakes you / with the sound of your own voice singing.”

“People mattered to mom,” Frank’s son, William, writes in the afterword. “She could take a random person, speak to them for 30 seconds, and be their best friend. I think that’s why she was so successful as a writer. Fundamentally, she cared about people very deeply.”

That’s what makes “Reunion Beach” the perfect tribute to Dottie Frank. It radiates with love — the love she felt for others and the love others felt for her. Thankfully her spirit lives on in her books. And with beach season upon us, there’s no better time than now to bust out a Dorothea Benton Frank book and revel again in her zest for life.

Suzanne Van Atten is an award-winning book critic and contributing editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. svanatten@ajc.com

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