Mary Kay Andrews
reviewed by Gail Byrd
Old Florida, home of mom-and-pop motels painted in pastel colors, shuffleboard games and covered dish dinners for the guests, and families who return year after year. It’s a Florida that only exists in small pockets now, or in the memories of a previous generation who would drive hours, avoiding the alligator farms and other roadside offerings whose advertisements screamed out from the countless billboards lining the highway.
In Mary Kay Andrews’ newest book, The Newcomer, the reader gets a peek into life in one of the remaining mom-and-pop places just outside of Tampa on the beach at Treasure Island. It’s a delightful opportunity to take a short vacation, enjoy a little sun and surf along with Letty, the central character who just happens to be running away from Evan, her sister’s suspected murderer. In case that doesn’t complicate things enough, she also has her four-year-old niece, daughter of her murdered sister and said suspected murderer.
After flying from New York to North Carolina, buying a car and driving to the gulf coast of Florida, Letty is exhausted. She pulls into the parking lot of a small mom and pop motel, hoping no one will see her car wedged next to the dumpster, and falls asleep. When she wakes, the first person she meets is the motel owner’s son, who happens to be a police officer with the Treasure Island police department. Fortunately for Letty, there isn’t a widespread hunt for her, and his suspicion springs more from finding a young woman asleep in a car in his mom’s parking lot than because of anything official. Fortunately, traveling with a four-year-old, especially one who is amazingly cute, has its advantages. With impeccable timing, Lettie’s niece Maya announces the need for a potty, then meets and charms the motel owner who is a sucker for a sob story.
The end result is Ava (the motel’s owner) offers to let Letty and Maya stay in an efficiency she’s been using for storage if Letty cleans it out. Letty jumps at the chance and immediately starts to work. In the space of that first day Letty gets the room passable, getting a little help from Joe, the cop/son to move the last heavy items and begins to settle into her stay at the delightful Murmuring Surf Motel.
Throughout the book, the reader gets glimpses of motel life in Florida that is almost extinct. There are the “regulars” who come every year for a month or more, often at the same time and who know one another almost as well as their neighbors back home. Activities are of the old-fashioned variety of shuffleboard, pot-luck dinners, ping-pong tournaments, and bingo nights; all happening against a backdrop of pastel-colored buildings, seashells, and tropical plants. It’s a paradise from long ago that is disappearing beneath the crush of resort hotels and condominiums. Completing the picture are well drawn characters, both major and minor, who create a world within the motel that feels at once unique and familiar.
The Newcomer is peppered in a few places with chapters that deal with Letty’s memories and knowledge of New York and information from friends regarding his efforts to find her. There are also a few chapters from Joe and Maya’s points of view that help provide information to the reader and add depth to these characters.
Additional issues troubling Letty include why Tanya had a copy of an old article about The Murmuring Surf hidden away with money she referred to as her “go” bag, the reappearance of a scam artist who worked out of the motel for a while, and who is Maya’s real father. All these questions fold together to form a cohesive story that keeps the reader entertained and pulls them through the book. The tension in the book derives from the reader waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak, rather than numerous episodes of peril or blood and guts. In the end, Andrews closes all the storylines of the book in either the final chapter or the epilogue.
This is a classic stand-alone Mary Kay Andrews book providing the reader with a good story and enough description and activities to help them feel as if they are present at the book’s location. If you are old enough to have visited Florida when it was covered with these types of motels, it’s an absolute must read and will spark memories long buried. If you are looking for a book that will provide you a vacation along with a good story, this may be just the one for you. Be prepared to read several chapters at a time, though, as it is more enjoyable to let yourself get wrapped up in the story for a while than in reading a chapter at a time.
My thanks to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with an advance copy for review. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.