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Stiltsville is a wonderfully evocative setting for Susanna Daniel’s debut novel of the same name. A group of stilt houses located south of Cape Florida in Briscayne Bay, Stiltsville is both setting and theme in this gem of a novel. Categorized as domestic fiction, Stiltsville spans a generation from 1969 to 2006 and chronicles the lives of Frances and Dennis. It is the story of a marriage, and what could be a better metaphor for marriage than a home, romantically and precariously built over an ocean?
The stilt house belongs to Dennis’ family, and it is where Frances and Dennis first meet and where they will return throughout the book. Frances, who is there by happenstance at the invitation of a friend, understands by the end of her weekend that this place will have a special significance. She learns in the first chapter that there is an electric eel living underneath the stilt house. Frances dives to take a look at the creature, subsequently reflecting “I would learn, months later that electric eels can discharge as much as 6,000 volts of electricity—enough to kill a horse” (11). Dennis compares the electric eel to love, “coiled wherever it lives, unflappable and ready to strike” (28).
“Love is an electric eel” is probably among the strangest metaphors I’ve read, but it works for this novel, which could have become three or four different novels. Instead, the careful narrative refuses predictability and chooses a quiet, simple and honest story. There is an expertly crafted tension throughout; I kept expecting something disastrous to happen. This undercurrent of chaos is alluded to frequently:
I realized that I didn’t have the whole story. Something inside me seized up and brought to surface a fear I would experience only a few times during our marriage: What if everything was not as it seemed? What if all the walls fell away and revealed a world turned upside down, inside out, defiant of everything I’d taken for granted? (95)
Like the ocean, Frances and Dennis’ marriage has dangerous currents: hurricanes, unemployment, temptations. The work of marriage is never over; happiness is not a foregone conclusion. When their daughter Margo gets engaged, Frances muses “I hoped Margo would learn that the cement of a marriage never really dries, and she would apply that understanding to her parents, and value the work we’d done to survive” (224). Less you think that this book is a light romantic comedy, it is much more realistic and is not devoid of tragedy. It is the ways in which the characters respond to these difficult events that made me enjoy the book so much. The responses were so very human—alternately beautiful and compassionate, clumsy and selfish.
Stiltsville is a book I may have missed entirely had I not recently read that it was the recipient of the 2011 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for fiction (sharing the prize with Danielle Evans’ Before you Suffocate Your Own Fool Self ). I’m so glad I didn’t miss out on this wonderful debut; I’m looking forward to reading more from Susanna Daniel.