Like Alice Hoffman’s earlier book Seventh Heaven (1990), Turtle Moon is a blend of reality and fantasy, tragedy and comedy. In Turtle Moon, the changes in tone occur so frequently that the effect is dizzying. The novel, however, is unified by recurring themes and by appealing characters. Moreover, though the tone varies from incident to incident, Hoffman’s refreshingly optimistic view of life remains constant. Although she will not guarantee happy endings, most of her sympathetic characters do work through their difficulties to a possibility of happiness.
The complexity of tone characteristic of Hoffman’s fiction is illustrated in the initial pages of Turtle Moon, when the author describes Verity, Florida, where most of the action of the novel takes place. At first she writes about humidity, iced coffee, mushy figs, and an argument over a Chevy Nomad, all prosaic details, presented in crisp, simple language, suggesting that a realistic novel is to follow. Before the first paragraph has ended, however, she has ventured into fantasy, with a casual comment about souls so weighed down by humidity that they come to rest on living people. Then, as if to prove that such fantastic events are not whimsy or metaphor but actual fact, she tells how the founder of Verity controlled the spirits who were troubling him by catching them in a sugar bowl. The return to realism comes just as suddenly as the excursion into fantasy, for there is nothing extraordinary connected with the parades down Main Street held annually in honor of the founder with the magical gifts. These alternations imply that the world of Turtle Moon is that of magical realism. In Verity, Florida, there is no division between the supernatural and the natural, except in the minds of the unseeing, but both exist simultaneously in what is generally called the real world.
In addition to rejecting the dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural, Hoffman’s readers must adjust to her interweaving of comedy and tragedy. Early in the novel, she explains the title of the book as involving a clearly comic situation. Every year in May, she says, all of the creatures in Verity, Florida, experience a kind of madness that extends from the sea turtles, which come into town assuming that the West Main Street streetlights are really the moon, to the flaming red ficus bushes, to the rattlesnakes, to the human beings, who during that dangerous period must fight the temptation to abandon all order and restraint. That annual insanity is benign compared to the darkness that dominates the lives of some of Verity’s residents and that eventually threatens the most vulnerable of them. One of the characters in Turtle Moon believes himself to be a murderer; another actually is murdered; and two others, both children, must hide for fear of being killed by the real murderer. In the midst of the magic and the comedy that abound in Verity, then, there is also unhappiness and the possibility of tragedy.
The unhappiness is particularly intense because of the large number of divorced women who have come to live in Verity. Typically, they have given up not only affluent, predictable life-styles but also the social status that can be guaranteed only by having a prosperous husband. Their misery is accentuated by the realization that their former husbands continue to live well, often with new, younger wives, while their children, who cannot understand the loss of everything that made them feel secure, often take out their anger on their mothers and even wish to leave them for their fathers and their old homes. Such is the situation of Lucy Rosen, who is supporting herself minimally by writing obituaries while her son, Keith Rosen, skips school, indulges in petty crime, and, deliberately working to become the “meanest boy in Verity,” seems to be destined for prison.
Although her friends do not realize it, the plight of the woman they know as Karen Wright is as desperate as Keith’s, though in her case it is fear, not rage, that dominates her life. Karen is afraid to tell anyone that her real name is Bethany Lee, because she fears that her wealthy and influential former husband will find her and claim the right to terrorize her and her baby daughter, Rachel Lee.
The misery that local policeman Julian Cash feels has a different source. Twenty years ago, he had been as addicted to trouble as Keith is now, as determined to spite the person who loved him most, in his case, his cousin Bobby Cash. First Julian slept with Bobby’s girlfriend; then, driving drunk, he ignored Bobby’s pleas to slow down and crashed the car, causing his cousin’s death. Since that time, Julian has isolated himself. Although he is now within the law, not outside it, he is close to no one. His only real friend is Loretta, one of the dogs he uses in police work; although he owns another dog, Arrow, Julian considers him too savage to be a companion.
The event that brings all these...
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