Reading Elizabeth Bowen at Sanibel

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What makes a perfect motel get-away? On our family jaunts when I was a kid in South Carolina, the family car deposited us on the edge of turquoise pools and my sister and I raced into the motel to change into our suits. I paid no attention to the rooms we rented.

Sanibel Island, linked to the southwest Florida coast by a breath-taking causeway and high-looped bridge, seems a throw-back to the 50s, except this time the motel room gets all the attention. Large and shaded by a long gallery which runs along the strip of motel rooms, our generous room at Anchor Inn peaked at the entrance and sloped down to narrow windows overlooking a lagoon. At around 7 each morning, a tall jet of spray lifted out of the lagoon to play begin its music. Sabel palms (the island’s most common) and Australian pines towered over shorter bushes. As I sat up in bed, reading The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen (published in 1938 and set largely in London), the gentle light and sounds of falling water washed away all memory of Minnesota snow.

Bowen’s novel, dense and glinting with subterfuge, takes us deep into the confusions of an orphan, who like Bowen herself, orphaned at 12, must take up residence with distant relatives. Portia, at 16, comes to live with her half-brother and his wife Anna in what I imagine to be a three or four-story, narrow, well-furnished but steely house which faces a park with swans. Portia and Anna form the two sides of the inevitable triangle, with the stern housekeeper Matchett forming the third. Though fascination with various men–the flagrantly narcissistic and conniving Eddie and stalwart, kind-hearted Mr. Brutt–occupies both Anna and Portia (in fact, they take turns flirting and attempting to become intimate with both), it is their disinclination for each other, and Matchett’s mothering of Portia that drive the emotions and ruptures of the plot.

It’s the writing that carries me deep into admiration. Almost anyone, I tell myself, can set characters at each other; it’s a mistress of subtlety and surprise who can throw cloudy motivation onto draperies, telephones, or an orphan’s sensuous delight in a newly washed, fluffy rug. There are plenty of rougher characters: Portia’s classmates at a private school; the distant relatives with whom she spends a month’s holiday while Anna and the half-brother vacation on Capri. These “blokes” on the edge of adolescence but already employed–they have to make their way; no family money supports them–voice snappish, silly notions and enlarge Portia’s experience of sex and its vagaries; they also have the virtue of being absolutely open about their thoughts and feelings.

Sanibel has kept itself small–no enormous high-rises hotels or condos; everything low or no more than four stories. It’s also put 60% of the land into nature preserves, with the J. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge being one of its best known. Our guide, a Barry from Brooklyn, couldn’t have been more informative or passionate about mangroves and mud-flats, willets (tallish, plump wading birds) or the many osprey (“fish hawks”) we watched from our open-air tram. In south Florida, mangroves with their stilt-like roots and glossy leaves hold the swamps and islands from being eroded and washed away by hurricanes. A hurricane, Barry told us, can break the branches, tear the leaves off, but it can’t uproot a mangrove. When a wealthy property-owner on the mainland destroyed mangroves on his land, he was fined $50,000 and required to replant them.

Imagine mangroves as the Matchetts of south Florida: they “come with the furniture” and take far sturdier and determined care of up-coming generations (read, Portia) than any besotted sophisticate. I won’t reveal the plot or ending of The Death of the Heart, except to say, despite the title, I don’t believe the heart dies at all; in this novel, like Sanibel, those who work at preservation take control at the end.

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