“Heart of Palm” by Laura Lee Smith is a debut novel with believable, down-to-earth characters, a good depiction of small town life and a plot that involves the struggle to balance tradition and progress. The unusual prologue explains the father, Dean Bravo, and his marriage to Arla Bolton and the tragedies that follow.

The stunning red-headed Arla had come from an upper middle-class family who were extremely unhappy when Arla announced at 18 that she was marrying a blue-collared Bravo. The author writes, “Her mother put her hands to her face, and her father went for the Scotch.” They live in a three-story, run-down house that Dean had named Aberdeen.

While on their honeymoon, Arla is seriously injured in a terrible boating accident. Years later, after a tragedy involving their youngest son, Will, Dean walks out on his family and Arla is left to raise her three remaining children. 

 Reading this story is like living among the Bravo family as they eke out a living in Utina, Fla., on Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway between St. Augustine and Jacksonville. Florida is experiencing a huge boom; and real estate developers from Atlanta, Ga., are looking to acquire waterfront properties to build a marina and restaurant. They have approached Arla Bravo about selling the land for millions.

The Bravos have lived in Utina for generations. Carson, Frank’s older brother, did not get an education and is trying to make it big in his own investment firm but is in urgent financial need, as he is running a Ponzi scheme.

Frank, the gifted son, manages the family business.

It was never what he wanted to do, but he has done what he had to do. Sophia, the eldest and stunning like her mother, suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. She still lives at home and continually bickers with her mother.

Frank resents his brother who stole Elizabeth away from him back when they were all teenagers. Carson cheats on Elizabeth and Frank secretly dreams of running away with her somewhere, anywhere. The brothers both live with the pain of the death, 20 years earlier of their younger brother, Will, on the Fourth of July.

The Bravos might have gone on this way for years, but then they are offered a very large sum of money for all their properties. The hitch, however, is that the developers want either all of their land or none. The Bravo family is going to have to sit down together and agree about something.

The Bravos are a very well defined family, dysfunctional but still bound together. After one of their all-out brawls, the author writes, “The three of them sitting together in a dingy clinic waiting room, bruised and battered and barely able to stand, barely able to speak to each other and yet bound together somehow with something that might have been love but was different – harder, tighter, stronger even than love. It was not love, in fact.  It was family.”

The story “Heart of Palm” engages the reader with has interesting plot twists and portrayals of small-town living and family.