Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Summer Beach Read, ‘by invitation only’


“What is it about this place?”

“Look, I don’t know if it’s the smell of the earth or the night skies with all the stars or what, but I think it’s a bit like making a cake. You wouldn’t eat butter or flour or vanilla by themselves, but when you combine them with eggs and milk, they become something else. That something else is the magic of the Lowcountry, Susan.”

This is my first foray into Dorothea Benton Frank and I can see why she is a popular “summer beach read” author. “By Invitation Only” is a fun, fast, engaging novel that is perfect for whiling away the afternoon in a hammock with a big glass of sweet tea.

As with all of Frank’s novels, this one’s heart is in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. And as the title and cover art suggests, it revolves around a wedding. Or more specifically, what leads up to and follows after a bumpkin country boy from South Carolina marries a wealthy debutante from Chicago, told through the eyes of the MOG (mother-of-the-groom) and MOB (mother-of-the-bride).

The warm cushy soul of the book is Diane English Stiftel (MOG). Diane, her parents, and brother are successful South Carolina produce farmers, with an emphasis on their luscious peaches. Their days are spent tending to the orchard and their farm stand, then making delicious products from the literal fruits of their labor. Seriously, I wish that Frank would have included recipes for the jams and pies she talks about in the book but without the family’s signature peaches, they probably wouldn’t have tasted the same. While the farm work is rewarding, it’s definitely not a path to a life of champagne and caviar. THAT is the life of Susan Kennedy Cambria (MOB), wealthy Chicago socialite who drops more designer names in a sentence than I use in a year. It takes about two chapters to see the conflict in this story will come from earthy Diane and snotty Susan.

“By Invitation Only” follows the typical path of a wedding from Engagement Parties (I’ll let you guess which features a chicken and which a world-famous jazz pianist) to the Wedding. Each family has definite opinions on the upcoming festivities and their child’s future in-laws. Diane feels inferior but comes to terms with it. Susan feels superior and well, she never really comes to terms with it. Not in the beginning, anyway. Shelby and Fred (B&G) try to harmonize their two families but in the end, Diane and Susan put aside their differences so everyone can enjoy a beautiful wedding.

Now if that is all the book was about it wouldn’t be more than 150 pages. Thankfully life still happens between all these events and that is where the book gets its charm from Floyd, Diane’s rascal of a brother to Virnell, her saucy saint of a mother. There is also an easy-to-spot plot twist that that takes the characters down a path that was easier to spot than the plot twist. I couldn’t help but think of the TV show “Green Acres.” And I say that in a good way.

Each character narrates a chapter and interestingly, we only get the women’s POV. Which makes sense to me because in the real world of wedding planning, men are pretty much peripheral characters. I speak from experience – I have done this as a living for almost 20 years. Frank is especially on point with Susan’s over-the-top attitude as she plans her (“I mean Shelby’s”) wedding. I may be nitpicking that the men always seem to be the ones saving the day while the women do all the work. And with the exception of one, all those men are all almost too good to be true. But this story isn’t meant to be a combative treatise on the dynamics of women vs. men. It’s meant to be as light as a summer breeze and as sweet as freshly churned peach ice cream with a smidgen of angst thrown in just to keep it interesting. “By Invitation Only” may be predictable with its happily-ever-after ending, but that’s what makes it such a satisfying read.

Enjoy your summer reads!

Lynn Alexander is a recently published author and long-time book, food, cat and college football lover (Go Green!). Her career journey started in upstate New York, writing and recording commercials for radio. She moved to Venice, Florida to manage a restaurant which led her to Naples and Marco in 2002, where she currently books weddings and events for a local resort. Alexander is a Leadership Marco 2015 alum which fed her passion for history and learning. A butterfly at parties but a loner at heart, she loves nothing more than baking yummy desserts then retreating to a quiet corner to read.

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