Suddenly a Widow Without a Home
In Claire at Edisto, we first meet Claire Avery beside her husband Charles’ fresh gravesite. Rain is pouring down on her, and it’s thundering in the distance. The burial service is over.
The day had been sunny at the time of the service in the church Charles had pastored. Claire had stood in the receiving line for two hours afterwards with her daughters Mary Helen, 9, and Suki, 5. Charles’ brother Parker, who had lost his wife Ann three years before, picked up Suki to hold her when she got tired.
In the first five pages we meet the rest of both families. Claire overhears her own mother and sisters discussing her as she’s about to open the door to the kitchen of her house when she gets home. They never approved of her marriage to the “backwoods” pastor. Now she’s hearing what they really think of her and her children — things they would never say to her face.
Claire’s wealthy family had a lavish home in Arlington, complete with housekeeper. They assumed Claire would move in with them, since she would have to move out of the parsonage in Sweetwater, Tennessee. Their materialistic values were very different than Claire’s Christian values. She knew they would also treat her like a child again and try to fit her and the children into their mold. They would stifle the children’s creativity and personalities. Overhearing their conversation had told her that much.
The Averys, Charles’ farming parents who lived about two hours away from the parsonage, had also offered their home, but it was really too small for them all and Claire knew they’d have a hard time turning her into a farm girl.
Parker offered a third alternative, knowing that Claire would have a hard time with either her parents or his. He offered Claire the use of his beach house, Oleanders, on Edisto Island in South Carolina. Charles used to bring them there to spend their vacations and they all loved it. It seemed an appropriate transition place to Claire as she decided what to do next. Parker offered to help move her there for the summer, since school was almost out for the children.
Life in the Beach House at Edisto Island
Claire and her children quickly became a part of the island community in Edisto. They knew their neighbors and the children already had made friends because they had spent vacations there in the past. The children loved their rooms that Ann had decorated especially for them while she was alive.
Claire was caring for the Mikell and Whaley children when her friends Elaine and Lula had to work. She was also making items for Isabel to sell in her shop, the Little Mermaid. When Isabel sprained her ankle, she even hired Claire to work in the shop for a time.
Parker came to Edisto anytime he could get away from Wescott’s, the antique store in Beaufort that he and Ann had owned together. Claire appreciated being able to talk to someone who understood what she was going through, since so many of her friends avoided talking about Charles and his death. Ann had died of an aggressive cancer. Charles had died suddenly of an aneurysm in his church office as he was preparing a sermon. They talked about their grieving experiences.
The two also talked about the issues facing Claire:
- How to support herself and the girls
- Where to live
- How to resolve the problems with her parents if Claire were to live with them in Arlington
Both her own parents and the Averys felt it looked bad for Claire to continue living at Parker’s house rent-free, especially since he often visited. Claire was feeling the pressure to move in with her parents in the fall.
One evening toward fall Parker was watching Suki while Claire and Mary Helen were taking a walk on the beach. Miles Lawrence, whose mother Eudora owned a beach house three houses down from Oleanders, approached Parker. Like Parker he was an occasional visitor, but told Parker he was writing a book and would be around more during this summer. He was a psychology professor.
Just then Claire and Mary Helen came into view. Miles made it clear he found Claire attractive. Parker was quick to state she was the recent widow of his brother, and Miles stated his interest was only professional. Parker doubted that and felt a stab of jealousy. But he was forced to introduce them as Claire returned.
Parker was seething as he watched the handsome blond man try to charm both Claire and Mary Helen. He wondered why he was upset and it suddenly occurred to him he was starting to fall for Claire himself.
Miles seems to turn up frequently when Claire appears to be alone on the beach or on her porch. He probes her with personal questions that make her feel uncomfortable, and she realizes she’s attracted to him and slightly repelled at the same time.
One evening she is looking for her sketchbooks that contain some stories she has written and illustrated to entertain the children. She sees Miles approaching and he has them under his arm. He tells her they were really good and that he’s approached a friend of his at a publishing house with them. Mary Helen had showed him the books and he had borrowed and copied them.
Claire expresses her anger at his doing this without her permission. He asks her if she’s afraid she’ll fail or succeed if her books are published, and he challenges her to pursue her talent. He intimates she may not have the discipline to develop it. She asks if he enjoys upsetting her.
I like making you think about yourself….I like making you look at who you are besides a wife and mother. You define yourself in too narrow a sphere. You don’t recognize any of your talents as possibilities for expanding who you are. Yet each of them hold the potential for showing you a whole new dimension of your being.
When she expresses her discomfort at his probing he replies, moving closer: ‘I make you uncomfortable, too, because I look at you as a woman, a beautiful, desirable, and attractive woman. I know you feel the attraction between us. I certainly do.’ (p. 97) Then he kisses her. She tells him to stop, grabs her books, and flees.
The next day her dad arrives unexpectedly and talks her into moving to Arlington. He has found a job for her there and wants them to leave Edisto as soon as she can pack. They will caravan. She agrees to go. At least she will escape Miles’ unwelcome attention.
Once in Arlington with Claire’s mother and sisters, Claire and the girls are predictably unhappy. Suki is forced to go by Sarah Katherine, which she hates, and her natural music gifts are being squelched by a piano teacher who won’t recognize them and let her use them. Verna Hampton is also determined to ‘work on’ Mary Helen’s ‘stubborn independent streak.’ She also thinks Mary Helen is ‘entirely too outspoken for nine years old and shows her intelligence too much for a girl. ‘
Claire herself takes a job offered by a lawyer friend of her father’s and she hates it. She misses the island. Three months later, in November, Parker pays an unexpected visit. He has two important messages for Claire that give her two good reasons to return to Edisto. He helps them leave almost immediately while Claire’s mother and sisters are out of town.
My Review of Claire at Edisto
This book is for thoughtful readers who aren’t simply looking for light escape fiction. This book is character-driven. I knew by the end of the first chapter how it would end, but that didn’t spoil it for me. I was very interested in seeing how the characters got to the end I foresaw. All the characters reminded me of people I have actually met. I saw no stereotypes or cardboard characters. Most of the people I met in the book I would enjoy meeting in real life. I’d probably invite them to dinner.
Claire herself was kind, thoughtful, and diplomatic. That probably helped her as a minister’s wife. Perhaps she was too diplomatic in dealing with her mother and sisters. Claire is an attentive mother and a helpful friend. She should probably be more assertive in her relationships, since others, especially in her family, try to dominate her or take advantage of her desire to please people.
Parker, like his brother Charles, is an oddball in his family. Their parents and siblings are farmers and the boys did not want to follow in their footsteps. Parker is a good businessman and a caring person. Like Claire, he communicates easily with all ages. Both children and adults like and respect him.
Probably my favorite character is Mary Helen. She always calls the shots the way she sees them and isn’t shy about it. When Parker pays his visit to them in Arlington she reveals exactly what’s happening, whereas Claire is trying to be accepting and make the best of the situation. `Parker takes them all out to dinner. This except from the book will show you how these characters interacted then and will reveal a lot about their personalities:
Suki tells Parker, “We miss you and Edisto. I wish we’d never left because me and Mary Helen hate it here.”
Claire’s eyes flew wide with embarrassment. “Suki, that wasn’t a very nice thing to say. You know your grandparents are very good to us. ”
“She always says things like that,” Mary Helen said, rolling her eyes. “She won’t tell you her mother is mean to us, but I will. She’s not a very nice person.”
Parker tried to hide a smirk.
“The girls are having a little difficulty adjusting to a lifestyle that’s somewhat different for us,” Claire said, pasting an awkward smile on her face.
The Edisto Community
The island is a tourist spot that’s much busier in summer than during the rest of the year. Those who live on the beach year round know each other and help each other out. Many become friends. Claire’s friends were Elaine Whaley, a realtor, Lula Mikell, who with her husband owns a business that rents bikes, boats, etc. to tourists, and Isabel Compton, who owns the Little Mermaid, a children’s clothing and gift store. Isobel’s husband Ezra is a psychiatrist. Their children are all friends, too.
The community had worked together to help keep the island from becoming overly developed. When a hurricane threatens beach homes, neighbors look out for each other. When Claire had a painful experience involving Miles, Ezra went to see him and told him to make himself scarce and leave her alone. (You’ll have to read the book to find out about that.) Friends watched each other’s children and often socialized over meals. One doesn’t often see neighborhoods like that today — at least not where I live.
Issues the Book Dealt With
The two main issues I believe the book illuminated were healthy grieving and practical Christianity in relationships of all kinds. Lin Stepp presents these issues with characters who model healthy behaviors and with dialogue.
Both Claire and Parker model healthy grieving behaviors. Claire’s grief is fresh and she still cries a lot, mostly at night after the children are in bed, but not always. She lets the girls know it’s okay to be sad and does not feed them any platitudes in response to their questions. They asked questions about why God would let their daddy die when they needed him, whether their daddy was watching over them from heaven, and more. Claire does the best she can to give them honest answers even as she’s seeking them herself.
Parker is farther along in his grieving process, since it’s been three years since he lost Ann. He is able to share what has helped him as he seeks to comfort Claire. As their uncle, he does his best to fill in as a positive male figure in the lives of his nieces. He and Ann had never had children.
I have a lot of experience with grief. I’ve lost both parents and both children. The grieving shown in this book is true to what I have lived. Everyone grieves differently, but some authors overdo it in a way that makes me wonder if they’ve ever had any first-hand experience with grief. Lin Stepp either has experience or has studied it very well.
I have read more Christian novels than I can count. Some are subtle in getting Christian principles and the Gospel itself to readers. Others are like a series of thinly disguised sermons. Claire at Edisto is subtle. Christian characters model Christian living more than they preach about it. Much of the Christian teaching is presented in natural conversations. Claire teaches her children in everyday language to be kind and not to judge people by skin color, etc. Adult conversations are more complex, delving more deeply into issues like unanswered prayer.
Characters discuss subjects like evil in the world, death, prejudice, forgiveness, leading people on in relationships, fear of being honest about one’s romantic feelings, how soon it’s okay for widowed people to remarry, and unanswered prayer. None of these topics seem tacked onto conversations. Rather, these conversations help you know what the characters are thinking and feeling. They are the kinds of conversations you might have with your friends.
What I like about Stepp’s dialogue is that it’s well-integrated into the story as a whole where appropriate. So many Christian novels I’ve read dump sermons of several paragraphs into a conversation that doesn’t relate well to its context. It’s almost as if the author feels compelled to put the Gospel in there somewhere so that the novel will be Christian, but the rest of the book almost seems secular.
Stepp scatters small tidbits as appropriate in context throughout the book. Christianity is part of who Claire, Parker, and Aggie (Verna’s black servant) are. The way they live and speak is usually consistent with what they say they believe. I really appreciate that.
One more thing I appreciated was the realistic and thoughtful way Parker and Claire treated each other as their relationship slowly developed. There was only a tinge of the artificial “this relationship is impossible” device some authors use to keep characters apart to give the plot time to develop. I would not label this a romance because it avoids the contrived plots most books labeled as romances have. The more typical romantic behavior occurs between Claire and Miles.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is grieving, especially if they are grieving the loss of a spouse. I believe any single mother in the midst of a big change or in search of a new direction would enjoy this book, as well. It’s well-written and provides food for thought as the plot steadily progresses.
It’s not a mystery or a thriller, but there are some suspenseful moments near the end. It resembles the Mitford Series by Jan Karon in its portrayal of a small town of connected people where Christians live consistently according to their principles and have solid relationships with each other. If you liked visiting Mitford, I think you will also like visiting Edisto. I’m looking forward to the next book.
I would like to thank Lin Stepp for giving me a review copy of this book. My review is still objective and my honest opinion after reading the book twice.