A Lowcountry sense of place

Dottie Frank has written “The Last Original Wife,” a novel set in Atlanta and the Lowcountry.

Brad Nettles

If you are looking for a novel in which women play the perpetual victim and men the eternal victimizer, in which the battle of the sexes is a scorched-earth, winner-take-all struggle to the death, you’ve come to the wrong bookshelf.

Dottie Frank’s heroines may suffer their share of confusion, reversals and ill treatment at the hands of men (and other women), but hand-wringing and angst are not their style. Taking control of their lives and their futures is.

Anger may flare, and resentment may fester now and again. But love wins out. As always, Frank’s Lowcountry-set fiction is about approaching life with an open heart and an open mind.

Sometimes there are no villains. Many relationships simply run their course. People fall out of love with each other. The trick is charting an amicable parting of the ways.

“Everything in this world has a lifespan, and sometimes — a lot of the time — relationships get worn out,” says Frank. “And if you don’t have the courage to pick up and go because you’re lazy, you’re comfortable or whatever reason, well ...”

For Leslie Anne Greene Carter, protagonist of Frank’s 14th novel, “The Last Original Wife” (Morrow), the wake-up call begins with a fall down an open manhole cover, her own personal plunge down the rabbit hole.

The aftermath, exacerbated by her less-than-attentive husband, Wesley, sets the Atlanta resident on a course back home to Charleston, the embrace of her brother, Harlan, and a new life.

“She has begun to see fidelity in a new way, that maybe she’s done her bit in this marriage, that maybe her job is over, and just like her husband, who is going to retire from this large company in Atlanta, perhaps it’s time for her to retire from this marriage, because there’s nothing else she can do. She had been lazy and not paying attention and gotten into a rut, like a lot of people do,” Frank says.

“Now, either she’s going to stay with things just how they are, or she’s going to go do something about her life.”

Carter, who has devoted her life to her family, believes she has exhausted every approach to get through to her self-involved spouse, or snap her “adult” offspring out of their funk. So it’s high time for a little self-actualization.

As usual, Frank delivers the goods her readers crave. The part-time Sullivan’s Island resident’s latest novel shares the virtues of all her books: sympathetic but clear-eyed treatment of characters, tangy humor, palpable sense of place, an effervescent prose style and the fact that while the author is sophisticated and worldly in her personal reality, she’s still an unassuming girl from small-town South Carolina, with an ardent love of the Lowcountry landscape.

The fact the she and her husband, Peter, have ventured all over the world — a Tanzanian safari is next in July — hobnobbed in high cotton, and had experiences many only dream about, does come through in the writing. But not in a showy way.

“I’m not trying to ‘big time’ anyone,” says Frank, whose next book will deal with the “Millennial” generation of which her own children, Victoria and William, are a part.

“What I try to do some of the time is bring the outside world to my readers. A lot of women, me included, get in a box and stay there because you’re raising your kids, taking care of your house and you’ve got your job, etc. I just got my yellow fever shot today for the trip to Africa and I’m thinking, ‘Maybe if I put a reference to Tanzania into a story, someone will dream a little bit bigger.’

“But it’s more than that. The most basic writing I do is to drink the sunset and the smell of the ocean, to breathe it through my whole body. The South Carolina Lowcountry is the sexiest place on earth, which is why I want to come back to stay. If you ask what do I want to do with the rest of my life, it’s to spend it here.”

There’s also Frank’s fascination with the Palmetto State’s literary legacy.

The best-selling author says she not only wants to explore the stories of notable South Carolina women but bring those women to her readers.

For “The Last Original Wife,” Frank evokes the spirit of Charleston writer Josephine Pinckney (1895-1957).

A pivotal figure of the Southern Literary Renaissance, Pinckney was known for combining social realism with irony, tragedy and humor in chronicling the foibles of the South’s declining upper class, as well as for interpreting the South and South Carolina for the rest of the nation.

“Jo Pinckney certainly is trying to tell Leslie something in this book. Pinckney did so many things right, and then she made choices that were not going to give her the satisfaction she was seeking.

The first part of her life was under the thumb of her mother, and the second part she sort of acquiesced in this relationship with Thomas Waring, though he had a great influence on her getting her feet on the ground. She had her disappointments, but she also situated herself in literary circles all up and down the East Coast.”

Frank tells her tale from the alternating perspectives of Leslie and Wesley in her snappy, first-person style, the better to inhabit her characters’ psyches and convey a sense of immediacy.

In doing so, she also addresses contemporary social issues and the customary array of human foibles.

“I was aiming at a few things. I wanted to look at the fact that someone in their late 50s or early 60s has got 25 or 30 years left to live, 35 if he or she is extremely lucky. They need to ask, ‘How do I want to spend them? Is this is a marriage I want to be in, is this the house or the town I want to live in? Is this where I want to be? What do I want to do that I haven’t done, and what are my plans to do those things?’

“Leslie was Wesley’s appendage for so many years. She also felt something of a failure of a mother because of her failure-to-launch children.

“She just thinks about things differently now. She thinks about fighting back, finally. She thinks about these new women coming along and taking her friends’ husbands away from them, which of course is largely overstated to make a point in the story. She comes to think that maybe these younger women are even doing the older women a favor, because they can get out with half of everything in a marriage that’s worn out.”

Wesley is not an irretrievably bad guy, says Frank. He’s just very much “like a certain kind of man from a certain kind of background,” though both husband and wife are, to some extent, captives of their (traditional) upbringing.

“Leslie never flexed a muscle until she fell in that hole. Still, she also realizes that if she leaves Wesley, there a chance that one day she could die alone, much like Jo Pinckney. She’s rolling the dice. The prospect of leaving a union with half the assets and forging a new life may be appealing at one level, but the older you are, the more terrifying it is to walk out of a marriage.”