Florida Woman Book Review by Deb Rogers

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An intelligent reader comes to any “Florida Man” story armed with certain expectations. There will be quirky, tacky characters, primordial wildlife at close range, and run-ins with the law. Deb Rogers’ first novel, “Florida Woman,” is no exception to these rules.

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It begins with a compellingly strange and solid premise: hapless twenty-something Jamie Hawthorne makes headlines while committing a misdemeanor on the job. Instead of going to jail, Jamie seizes the opportunity to serve her sentence by volunteering at Atlas, a sanctuary for exotic animals in the Ocala National Forest, “a tract of primitive land that had been avoided by indigenous farmers and settlers. alike, rejected by thieves. and developers, ignored by Flagler and Disney”. There, she hopes to find purpose and connection with her co-workers: Sari, owner and director of the extravagantly spiritual, clothing-optional Atlas; the mercurial Dagmar, veterinarian of the macaques rescued from the sanctuary; and sweet Earth, the resort’s cook who nurtures the sprouts and loves nature.

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With no particular task at first, Jamie drifts through his days, observing the strange behaviors of animals and humans alike. Although the women greet her warmly and seem to want her to feel cared for, she feels left out of her inner circle. She desperately longs to be a part of her hushed conversations, her inconsistent standards, her suspiciously secret “rituals.”

Obviously something else is going on here. Through a first-person narrative, Jamie notes all the clues that should set off alarm bells for her (certainly make the reader suspicious), but time and time again she convinces herself of her instincts. One night, Jamie secretly witnesses a haunting ceremony that flouts all the resort rules, but the next morning, “it all seemed too confusing to discuss, and I wanted to put it out of my mind.” After seeing something even stranger, Jamie realizes that “something primitive in me, deep in my marrow, told me to run.” But moments later, “another impulse, green and searching as a vine tendril, she told me that he had been invited to stay, that he could choose to stay.”

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After a while, the accumulated evidence that Jamie deliberately ignores becomes tedious. It puts the reader so far ahead of the story that Jamie seems decidedly weak instead of what he is: a victim caught in a cycle of abuse and emotional holding. The story of how a person gets caught up in such a situation is worth telling, but we don’t have enough sense of Jamie’s emotional character to understand why she behaves this way. Throughout the book, Jamie remains a mostly blank slate maneuvered to serve the plot. “I had no idea what she was supposed to do when… Sari said cryptic things or performed spontaneous rituals like this, as well as playing along and hoping she finally resonates.” Jamie’s game is often the only thing that drives the story, which she loses momentum like a clean shirt on a hot day.

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Florida Woman’s greatest strength is its sense of place. Rogers has the same understanding of sun-kissed life on sandy shores and the humid wilderness of the interior. “No photo could have prepared me for the swarms of mosquitoes,” she writes, “or the way thorny vines and cabbage palm seedlings rustled and rattled before my steps as unseen creatures fled from their shelter.”

Rogers’ affection for the animals of Atlas is also clear. Jamie admires a monkey’s cheeks, “so rosy they looked as if an older person had blushed them in the dim light of the bingo hall bathroom.” Each night, he indulges in friendly conversation with the macaques “as the sun melts like a bowl of raspberry-orange sorbet.”

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As Jamie’s summer progresses, events at the sanctuary come to a head and she is thrust into the climax of the novel. Jamie’s transformation is so longed for that she can only seem cathartic, and the story’s conclusion is efficiently set up and woven together for an ending that’s well plotted and satisfying, if not exactly plausible or surprising.

I had high hopes for “Florida Woman” because, well, I am one. Though Rogers strikes a tender balance between the weirdness and wonder of my home state, the promise of this backwoods mystery falls apart in the hands of a puny lead.

Ellen Morton is a writer in Los Angeles.

Hanover Square. 351 pages $27.99

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