It's been 10 years since Mary Alice Monroe brought Lovie Rutledge to life on the pages of The Beach House. The character, who Monroe revisits in her latest novel, Beach House Memories, is a significant one for the author. An "amateur naturalist" in 1970s Charleston, Lovie is a Southern housewife who's restricted by class and social norms from making a career out of her passion for sea turtle conservation. But Lovie protects her beloved species in her own way, forging a path as an original "turtle lady," voluntarily (and a bit obsessively) combing the beach for nests and meticulously tracking the dwindling population.
Monroe likewise has solidified herself as a "turtle lady" of the South Carolina coast, starting with her move to Isle of Palms and work as a licensed sea turtle volunteer. She now sits on the board of the S.C. Aquarium and serves as their animal care committee chairwoman.
"I feel very akin to Lovie. A lot of her insights are my insights," Monroe says, reflecting on the character she has spent more than a decade with. "Her life story is not mine, but her reflections, a woman of a certain age looking back on her life, are."
In Beach House Memories, readers are greeted with an aging Lovie who's remembering one of the most transformative summers of her life, knowing she is likely approaching the end of her journey. Monroe utilizes her unique blend of informative storytelling wrapped in the relatable sagas of her protagonists. The signature combination began in The Beach House, as she told the plight of the loggerhead sea turtle through the struggling mother-daughter relationship between Lovie and her youngest child, Cara.
"It turned my career in a new direction," Monroe said of her first New York Times bestselling novel. "I wanted to write books with a backdrop of nature — that inspired me. I'm now writing the eighth since then, and all have been inspired from some aspect of nature. The human theme always comes from some species."
Monroe's last work, The Butterfly's Daughter, paralleled the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly to the growth of protagonist Luz; similarly Lovie's character arch mirrors a female sea turtle as she returns annually to the beach where she was raised to nurture her biological children and her adopted turtles.
Monroe's typically breezy style and easily digestible plot are present, but the emotional elements of Lovie's situation are more of a focus than in some of the author's recent work. "I also wanted to explore the year 1974, when this takes place. Issues of spousal abuse and infidelity and divorce were treated much, much differently in families South of Broad and in 1974 than they are today."
The majority of the novel follows Lovie over the course of that time period. She has taken the traditional route of well-to-do Southerners of the time, Monroe says, marrying a successful businessman from a prominent family and staying home to raise two children. The expectations of maintaining a perfect house, throwing countless dinner parties, and volunteering with the proper organizations have left her feeling unfulfilled and unappreciated by her husband. She seeks solace and escape in her beloved Isle of Palms beach house, where she can fully unwind and revel in her love of nature.
"I think it is the story of a woman who finds validation for herself and her own passions, not associated with her husband and her children, finding her own identity," Monroe says.
Lovie also finds herself falling for another man, a biologist sent to the island to conduct a study on the impact of a proposed construction project. She is faced with difficult challenges, threats of scandal, and worse, of losing her children.
But as readers are brought back to the present, Lovie's self-reflection in her golden days evokes a calm acceptance of the journey she has been on. "When one looks at one's life, if one has truly lived a full life and one's children are doing well when that sunset comes, you know you are ready," Monroe says. "Because she faced life with a positive attitude, she lived a good life, a full life, and I think in the end that is the ending that we all want."
Book Launch Party: Mon. May 7, 6-8 p.m. S.C. Aquarium. $20. (843) 577-FISH