STILTSVILLE by Susanna Daniel

Stiltsville The December EDIWTB book club pick was Stiltsville, by Susanna Daniel.

Stiltsville is the chronicle of a marriage – that of Frances and Dennis, a couple who meets in their mid-20s in Miami. Frances is visiting Miami for the weekend, while Dennis is a Floridian with a house in Stiltsville, a community of houses on stilts in Biscayne Bay, outside Miami. Dennis and Frances end up marrying and making a life for themselves in Miami.  Stiltsville isn't an exhaustive diary of their marriage, but is more a series of vignettes and episodes. Frances and Dennis together face a number of challenges – Dennis' professional dissatisfaction, boom and bust times, a hurricane that destroys their stilt house, their daughter's surprise engagement.

Frances is a quiet person - a devoted wife, mother, and friend, but not particularly emotive. I liked her understatement and the slow teasing out of her inner narrative. I didn't mind the lack of a strong plot or the uneven passage of time. Reading Stiltsville is like looking through someone's photo album (back in the day before we chronicled every day on digital cameras) and hearing the backstory behind the pages.

Daniel also made me understand the appeal of Miami. She beautifully conveyed the heat, the lushness, and the dramatic storms that are so characteristic of that city, and the role that Miami played in Frances' life.

Overall, I quite enjoyed this book. It fit the bill for me – introspective domestic fiction with an interesting setting. I've read a lot of very positive reviews, as well as some that felt that the book was too slow or dull. I didn't find it slow or dull – to me it was a very satisfying read.

Thank you very much to Harper for providing books for EDIWTB readers! And now, let's hear from those readers… What did you think of Stiltsville?

25 Comments

  • Sarah
    December 22, 2010 - 4:46 am | Permalink

    I found “Stiltsville” compelling, although I’m not exactly sure why. It is a fairly plotless novel (at least until the last third or so of the book), which makes it especially interesting to think hard about the relationships between and among the characters. There were some elements of the book that I didn’t think worked very well. The very long account of whether or not Margo should skip a grade just wasn’t interesting enough to warrant so much ink. I am the mother of a girl just a little younger than Margo is in that part of the book, and even *I* didn’t find that very interesting. I felt as though if I didn’t find that part of the story compelling, no one else really would. I also wished that there had been more about Miami. Having lived in Miami for 1 1/2 years, I didn’t think that Susanna Daniel did justice to the city and the environs (even though she is from there). Miami is such an interesting combination of different cultures, the heat, etc. I wish that she had brought us into that more. Another element I didn’t like was the overly predictable “almost affair” between Frances and her tennis coach. I almost groaned out loud when the coach was introduced, knowing where the story line was leading.
    All that said, there was a lot I like about the book. I loved that a random weekend away completely changed the course of the protagonists’ life. I also loved the fact that part of what made Dennis so likable was his lack of ambition. So many novels are about ambitious/overly ambitious characters (so much of life is like this!). It was precisely Dennis’ lack of ambition that made him such a nice person, good husband, and good father. I also thought that Daniel did an excellent job of portraying the intimacy of a family with just three people.
    Gayle — I think that “Stiltsville” was an excellent book club choice, and am glad I read it. Thank you for the opportunity.

  • Susan
    December 22, 2010 - 9:03 am | Permalink

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Stiltsville.” It read like a leisurely stroll through the love story of a couple who found each other by accident.
    The characters were very likeable and with any event that might have put stress on their relationship, I found myself hoping that they would last. I could understand Frances’ angst regarding Margo and her reaction to her daughter’s unforeseen engagement. Frances’ attitude toward Stuart was surprising, because throughout the story, she was always accepting of everyone she encountered. Even when Stuart was doing all he could to help her with Dennis, Frances could never get past her annoyance with him.
    As I was nearing the final pages of “Stiltsville,” I noticed that my reading slowed down considerably, most because I didn’t want it to come to an end.
    I have and will continue to recommend “Stiltsville” to my family and friends!
    Gayle, thanks for inviting us to read this wonderful book.

  • December 22, 2010 - 9:06 am | Permalink

    I’m kind of torn on how I feel about this book. I guess when all is said and done I thought it was good, but too many times when I was reading I found myself thinking “where is this going!?” My husband asked me what I was reading and I iterally could not even think of a way to sum it up.
    And the ending… generally I have no problem with a sad ending, which this was, but I feel like it just snuck up too fast. Like the whole book we’re floating with no destnation and then the ending hits you like a train out of nowhere, if that makes sense.
    Ultimately did I like it? Yeah I guess. Would I read it again, or recommend it to someone? No, probably not.

  • Kelly Currie
    December 22, 2010 - 9:10 am | Permalink

    I wholeheartedly agree with you Gayle. I loved the book. I am already thinking about how I can “handsell” this book to others. It’s difficult to convey how engaging the book is since there is not really a plot. I could relate so well to Frances, particularly as she aged closer to my own age (51). I kept looking at the author’s photo on the dust jacket, thinking how can such a young-looking person totally understand how a marriage grows and changes over the years?! The relationship between Frances and Dennis was so tender, and I loved both of them by the end of the book. I don’t feel that I got a good sense of the person Margo became, but perhaps that makes sense since the book is written from Frances’s point of view. A mother may not always know what’s going on inside her daughter’s head. I agree with Sarah and didn’t like the portion dealing with the “almost affair,” although I think it was written well and captured the feelings truthfully. I just didn’t want her to do it and would have felt very differently about her if she did. All in all, I think this was a very good choice, and I would highly recommend Stiltsville to other readers.

  • Lindsay
    December 22, 2010 - 9:14 am | Permalink

    I found most of this book to be too quiet and tension-producing. I felt anxious the whole time I was reading it – as though I expected Frances to have an affair any minute. I also didn’t think the argument against her having one was that compelling. Dennis was not fleshed out enough for me to really get what was drawing her back to their relationship. It just felt so flat to me. It was not until the end, which I thought moved much more quickly, when they were going through Dennis’ illness together when I really felt the emotion and the feeling of their relationship. The pace was much better in this part of the story, and while I knew the inevitable end, by then I knew she wasn’t going to stray and could just lean into reading the story. In the end, I really enjoyed learning about Stiltsville and plan to do research to find out more about it. I liked the book too, even though most of it was too slow for me. Overall, I thought it was a good read, though I don’t know that I will recommend it to others. Thanks, Gayle for the opportunity to read this one that had been on my list for a while.

  • Susan B
    December 22, 2010 - 9:19 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed Stiltsville very much, and it wasn’t on my radar prior to it being mentioned for this book club, so thank you for organizing this, Gayle.
    I really enjoyed the portrait of a marriage in this book, seeing the phases it went through and wondering about what phases mine might go through down the road. The author did a good job of exploring phases in some of the other relationships in the book as well (e.g., Margo and Stuart, Frances and Marse). It was also interesting to see how the relationships between Margo and each of her parents differed, although she was close to both of them. A lot of the writing seemed subtle. At times I felt the book was a tad slow and low key but toward the end I realized how well I felt I knew these characters and understood their relationships with each other.
    The final section of the book was very moving to me, partly for personal reasons and partly because I felt so attached to these characters. It made me wonder how I would hold up in a similar situation, whether I would have the fortitude required. (I don’t want to be more specific for those who haven’t read the book!)
    Finally, I enjoyed the storytelling technique that was employed, of Frances telling her story in the first person and dropping periodic hints of things to come. It made me wonder about what trouble was coming without me anticipating at all what actually happened. It kept me interested and curious without feeling that the book was headed toward an obvious conclusion.

  • Miriam
    December 22, 2010 - 9:45 am | Permalink

    I loved the book and am so glad we got to read it. I will be recommending it to others and since I am a librarian, I made sure we had several in our system. I think it would make a good book club discussion (witness all the thoughtful comments).
    I have enjoyed sharing some of the writing with my husband who grew up in South Florida and could identify with the setting. I love her writing.
    Great book.

  • Lisa Ridgley
    December 22, 2010 - 10:57 am | Permalink

    I found most of this book to be too full of “almost”…almost had an affair, daughter almost was killed at college, almost…… There was build up of story lines, and tension-producing plots, then I was let down with nothing actually happening. It just felt too normal to me. When I read, I like to escape everyday life and read about something different than my rather ordinary life. This felt too real. I did enjoy the character development, and first person story telling, and was emotionally moved at the end of the book. I too was not bothered by the uneven timeline. Overall, I thought it was a good read, not great.
    Thanks, Gayle for the opportunity to read Stiltsville.

  • Amy W.
    December 22, 2010 - 11:23 am | Permalink

    I really liked this book. The writing was wonderful and I enjoyed the story and it’s pacing very much. I found that I really got Frances and was quite moved by Daniel’s writing of her, “Those early years of Margo’s life, of our marriage, were uncomplicated to a degree that I’d never experience again.” That was so relatable. I was quite drawn in from the start and couldn’t put the book down until it sadly ended. Thanks Gayle for the opportunity for another great read!

  • TLB
    December 22, 2010 - 11:24 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately I did not make it past the halfway point of this novel. The tone was too flat and the plot was inert – I was disappointed.
    I did enjoy a couple features :
    1) the setting -I had no idea that there are homes on stilts off the shore of Miami; I found this fascinating. Also, the electric eel in the toilet bowl from the beginning of the novel is an image that will stay with me.
    2) the atmosphere of the South – the descriptions felt authentic and she seemed to capture the rhythm of the time and place nicely, without trying
    What didn’t work for me:
    1) the prose was too spare for my taste – the sentences were too telegraphic for me, and the paragraphs read like a recitation of events, like a captain’s log, without feeling or nuance.
    2) the narrator did not seem to have much of a personality – I got no sense of her interior life, just an idea of what she observed – I like to read novels where the narrator reflects and analyzes and chews over events (to a degree)
    I was hoping for a more satisfying read, considering the enthusiastic blurbs from Curtis Sittenfeld and Jennifer Haigh.

  • Michelle B
    December 22, 2010 - 11:48 am | Permalink

    Although I enjoyed Stiltsville, there were some things that bothered me about the book. From the beginning to about halfway through the book, I felt there was a ‘darkness’ that permeated through the story – – lots (too much) foreshadowing.
    Whereas the time jumps didn’t bother others, it bothered me.
    Thanks Gayle for leading this book discussion. I really enjoy reading what other thought of the book. Lots of great viewpoints!

  • December 22, 2010 - 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I think your comparison of the book’s structure to a photo album is apt – the narrative was linear, but zoomed in on some episodes while jumping over years in between. I had a little trouble getting started with it, but once I did, I stayed hooked. I liked Frances’ voice, although I wasn’t always sure I liked HER all that much. The story’s drama and points of conflict felt like they came from real life, and I found that to be part of its appeal.
    I lived in Florida for ten years, and I thought that Daniel did an excellent job of evoking Miami through a transitional period in the city’s history.
    I’d been waffling about reading this novel, but I’m glad I did – thanks for hosting the book club, Gayle!

  • marcia Hardell
    December 22, 2010 - 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Gayle- I loved this book…..I thought her writing and the descriptions were excellent……..As I was reading it bothered me that the birth of her daughter, Margo, was so sudden,but later upon reflection,it didn’t seem like such a big deal. There were
    many phrases in the book that were really beautifully written.
    I loved the ending…….and how she thanks her husband……
    I really liked this book. marcia Dec.22

  • Elisabeth
    December 22, 2010 - 2:32 pm | Permalink

    I would like to thank you Gayle for coming up with the idea for the book club and giving me the opportunity to participate, and to Harper for their generous donation of books.
    I agree with with much of what has been said. I don’t know why but I thought this was going to be a story about a “town” that was out in the water, so I was a bit surprised that it was about a family that went to Stiltsville on the weekends. Sometimes I get crazy notions in my head, and I had read about it beforehand. I found the first half of the book disappointing because the characters seemed flat. Nobody talked about how they felt, they just relayed the facts. Kind of like they were up on stilts looking down on the world. This changed in the second half and I found myself getting attached and caring about the characters. The demise of Stiltsville and being on the ground. I wanted to keep reading to find out what was going to happen. I also was disappointed when I thought Frances might have an affair, but so very happy when she decided not to. For once a character realized all she had to lose and was able to make the right decision. I thought Dennis was a wonderful person – he was good for Frances and I would have liked the chance to have met all of them – especially Dennis. These characters were very true to life. I could imagine myself being right there with them. I hope to read more of Susanna Daniel.
    Happy Holidays!!

  • Kiki
    December 22, 2010 - 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed Stiltsville! I really love a completely character driven novel, because isn’t that how real life is? There is no plot, no storyline to our lives; it is simply unfolding in front of us as we live. And while some novels like this don’t work, I think this one does because of the wonderful writing and the true voice of Frances. She is honest and real to a fault. Her character works, she’s like someone you know.
    I tended to agree with Lindsay that I wish Dennis was more fleshed out, but I can live with that too, because honestly, I have some friends that remind me of Frances, and I certainly don’t know their husbands any better than we know Dennis at the end of the novel.
    I did feel a certain disconnect with the title and the book, unless you look at Stiltsville as a symbol for Frances and Dennis’ life: standing strong against the storms for years, but eventually age gets you and you’re gone. But the book could have just as easily been called Miami! Of course, there is a certain beautiful charm to the house on stilts. There is a lighthouse like it out in Mobile Bay in Alabama and I have always wished I could live like that, in the middle of the water, away from civilization. simply beautiful and quiet, except for the sounds of the water and the birds–awesome.
    Thanks for letting me get in on this reading, Gayle! It was well worth the time! I’ll be selling this one…

  • Miriam
    December 22, 2010 - 4:45 pm | Permalink

    I almost felt as if Stiltsville was another character in this novel- it felt so much a part of the life of this couple. I really liked Frances- she seemed so real and human.
    I had read about this novel and wanted to read long ago. I am so glad I had the opportunity to read and share thoughts with others.
    What a great read!

  • December 22, 2010 - 5:04 pm | Permalink

    This book started out slow for me, but I was sobbing by the end. I found the devotion between Frances and Dennis touching and an example of what true love is all about.

  • Darby Lohrding
    December 22, 2010 - 5:43 pm | Permalink

    I loved the writing about the setting in Stiltsvile, like Miriam mentioned I too felt like the surroundings was a character in this book. When I think back about this book, I first recall the aspects of Frances’s surroundings as she discovers aspects about southern Flordia that only a local would know about …. Daniel does us a great service by introducing us to the area through Frances’s eyes. The other thing I recall when thinking about this book is the love between France and Dennis. I was afraid that this couple was going to be torn apart due to what I read in the reviews yet the truth is just the opposite. Their love made this book a great read!
    Thank you Gayle!
    Darby
    darbyscloset at yahoo dot com

  • December 22, 2010 - 5:46 pm | Permalink

    I am loving all these comments! Great discussion. There seem to be strong feelings in both directions about this book, which always makes for a good discussion. Thanks for participating, everyone!

  • Sharon Walling
    December 22, 2010 - 6:40 pm | Permalink

    I loved this book. Thank you for letting be a part of this book club. I found it to be a book that once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. I felt a part of the family. The marriage between Frances and Dennis was beautiful.
    It was sad to see what happened to Dennis and how Frances and their friends rallyed around.

  • December 22, 2010 - 11:59 pm | Permalink

    Great discussion. I haven’t gotten my review of the book posted yet but I wanted to stop by and comment. Thank you for putting this together.
    I too wasn’t exactly sure why Frances wasn’t happy in her marriage. A potential affair was eluded to early on so I truly expected it to happen at any moment.
    I think that the author was trying to display a realistic romance and marriage and did so with great success.

  • sheila
    December 26, 2010 - 11:43 am | Permalink

    Sorry to be posting so late. I have been out of town and not around a computer.
    I agree with TLB in that I could not get through this book. I am very reluctant to not finish a book, but got about halfway through and still felt like I was an outsider. I could not connect with any of the characters, and found that I did not care what was happening to them. I agree that it felt like going through someone’s scrapbook, however I needed more emotion behind each picture.
    That all being said, I loved the descriptions about the area and the water. There were times sitting in bed reading this book that I felt like I was on a dock looking over the water…
    Thanks for keeping me in touch with new books, and happy new year to Gayle and everyone!

  • January 10, 2011 - 6:53 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed the writing of Daniel, but the book was just OK for me. I felt no connection to Frances and thought that all of her relationships with her husband, his family, and their friends were stilted, stagnant and never grew.
    I kept reading because I enjoyed the relationship she had with Margo and her struggles as a mother, but I felt that once she had grown up that there should have been a deeper exploration of this relationship.
    Daniel is a gifted writer and descriptions of Miami over the decades beginning in 1969 were great and very captivating.

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