The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Sunday, June 23, 2024 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

Review: Local author explores grief and love in new release

lifestyle-saddest-girl-on-beach.png

It’s a wonder they do not set more Hallmark movies in the Outer Banks. It has stormy seas, cozy isolation from the mainland and miles of shoreline to walk along with one’s love interest. In her latest book, “The Saddest Girl on the Beach,” released on April 9, Heather Frese set out to remedy this lack with a story of grief, love and friendship set entirely on Hatteras Island

Four months after the death of her father, the book's protagonist, Charlotte, escapes her life, school and family in Ohio and heads to the Outer Banks. She stays in a tiny seaside inn owned by her best friend Evie’s family. Evie and her parents and brother, Nate, surround Charlotte with warm conversation and easy distraction — but nothing is really as simple as it seems. 

The setting of the Outer Banks, ever-shifting and wild, serves as a place of constant reflection and contemplation for Charlotte. She is more connected to the islands than to many of the characters that surround her. Conversations with Charlotte are often quick, short and avoidant, but when it comes to the ocean, she takes her time to describe the wind, the waves and the sand.

Life on the island may be isolated, but it is certainly not calm. Charlotte’s distraction from her grief manifests itself in a thoroughly messy romantic life and Evie faces an unexpected pregnancy. All the while, Charlotte’s mother and brother back in Ohio wonder when she will come home. 

Frese's prose is at its strongest when she makes poignant observations on grief throughout the book. Frese lost her own father, just like Charlotte, and her experience translates well to the character. 

With dialogue, however, Frese plays it too safe. The conversations tend to cover minimal ground, and some appear to serve little purpose but to fill space between Charlotte’s narrations to the reader.

Readers expecting the witty back-and-forth banter of a typical love story might not find what they are looking for. The book is a romance at times, but so suffused with the pain of losing a parent that it becomes something entirely different — a welcome subversion of the genre.

Charlotte is not the archetypal strong-willed, quirky, relatable-but-not-too-relatable protagonist. She often yields easily to the people around her, even if she does not agree with them. Jealous and noncommittal, she makes some incredibly frustrating decisions sometimes, but you cannot help but want the best for her. 

Her occasional romantic opposite, Nate, is a Ken doll comparatively. Agreeable, steady and kind, he contains about half the personality that his sister, Evie, does and something like a quarter of Charlotte’s. He is the Hallmark love interest with little to no personal conflict, even when Charlotte is at her absolute messiest. Nate becomes a blank canvas on which Charlotte splatters her grief.

“I was sure that I needed his solidity, his anchoring presence, the brush of his skin against mine, to keep me from falling too far into my own head," Charlotte narrates in first-person. "I couldn’t think much further beyond that.” 

The book is as much a story of friendship as it is love. Maybe even more.

Evie and Charlotte have been friends since Charlotte was nine, and they reflect each other in many ways. Evie suffers through her own set of issues and makes several equally frustrating decisions. However, she always manages to hit Charlotte with a reality check when she needs it. 

With “The Saddest Girl on the Beach,” Frese delivers a whirlwind story full of familial and romantic tension, hospital visits and pounding storms. The narrative moves fast, and there’s a plot line for a variety of audiences.

But the main thread of the story never once fades: no matter how much Charlotte might want to run from a life without her father, she just cannot escape it.

@sydneybrainard

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.