Palm Beach, FL, is that tiny town nestled by the ocean north of Miami, seasonal home to the rich and richer. In A Palm Beach Wife (St. Martin’s Griffin), Susan Shapiro Barash, writing under the pen name Susannah Marren, delves into the status and tentative nature of the idealized lifestyle while focusing on a heroine who must find the balance between rejecting and embracing it all to succeed.
Amid the glamour and galas and parties of Palm Beach, Faith knows that image often counts as much if not more than reality. She glides effortlessly among the highest of the high society so perfectly that you would never suspect she wasn’t born to this. And yet even she―the only one who knows just how far she has to fall―never suspects from which direction, or how many directions all at once, betrayal will come.
I recently had the chance to chat with the author about her latest work, and should you be curious, she was not wearing a pink-and-green Lily Pulitzer mini-dress.
Sally Koslow: What inspired you to write this book?
Susannah Marren: I have spent my entire life in Palm Beach, in season. I’ve always been curious about how place affects us. How our environment influences our behavior and values and can even dictate what our goals and style should be. Palm Beach with its pristine beauty and wealth is seductive. I imagined placing a female character there, a woman with a past and a secret that others will judge.
SK: Complex loyalties required by marriage is a major theme. What are you saying about wedded life in The Palm Beach Wife?
SM: Marriage is a profound and mysterious commitment. Few of us know what will truly happen, despite our expectations, when we marry – for a first, second time, even a third time. The salient question is, what does it take to be a successful wife – the allure versus the reality, the adjustments and fortitude required.
I have researched the role of the American wife for several of my nonfiction books. The ambient thesis is that women hold the bar very high. Husbands are meant to be best friends/lovers/protectors/providers rolled up in one. The disappointment is devastating when this doesn’t work out. Survival for a wife becomes imperative, with several choices for regrouping. Some women fight to save the status quo, others renegotiate the marriage, others leave and start over.
Wedded life in A Palm Beach Wife is even trickier because Palm Beach society has an outlook of its own. In this rarified town filled with privilege and glamour, a collective behavior exists. This extends to how the women dress, fill their time, conduct their friendships and most significantly, carry on as wives and mothers. At the center of A Palm Beach Wife is a character, Faith Harrison, who has to face herself and choose her own path as a wife.
SK: You write both fiction—two novels under your belt—and non-fiction, with many books to your credit. Which form do you find most challenging?
SM: Fiction and nonfiction are similar and distinct disciplines. The goal is the same – that of writing a book, but the methods are challenging in different ways. For my nonfiction, the structure is established at the beginning of each book. I start with a concept – a hunch. For example, in my book Toxic Friends, the main subject, female friendships, is complicated and loaded. So while women profit from these connections and depend on their female friends, they also endure unhealthy bonds and need to face when to let go.
The question becomes how pervasive is this occurrence and what can be done to mitigate circumstances. With each project, I research the topic extensively and as a professor, I like to review serious treatises and studies, as well as the messaging of pop culture. What is most fascinating for me is the voices of the women themselves. Per the book, I interviewed several hundred women, a diverse group in terms of education, race, religion, social strata and age across the country. Although I have begun with a theory, I realize my conclusion when the work is completed. This is the template for my nonfiction work.
With fiction the structure is of another nature – it is engrossing and demanding on another level. The story belongs to the author – one can move her characters around at her will—the ending is as she imagines it, not a result of evidence gathered together.
Still, my nonfiction and fiction are tangential. What I have learned about women’s lives through my nonfiction is applied to my fiction. These investigations inform the female characters in my novels –the faces women wear versus how they truly feel, why women are covert, “good girls” who keep secrets and lie if necessary, have affairs, question the high notes of motherhood, can be jealous of their sister or of a friend. These realities for women are at the center A Palm Beach Wife. In this novel, Palm Beach represents “excellence,” and so a woman who is losing ground here suffers doubly.
SK: You are the mother of two adult daughters and a young granddaughter. The mother/daughter bond figures prominently in A Palm Beach Wife. Why did Faith Harrison try to protect her daughter? Is it a good relationship?
SM: The mother/daughter tie is one that fascinates me. I found in my study/book on mothers and daughters that 90 percent of women said they found it more challenging to raise daughters than sons. In A Palm Beach Wife, Faith is dedicated to her daughter’s happiness and well-being. How she has created her life in Palm Beach makes it even more significant for her that her daughter is safeguarded.
Faith’s intention is that her daughter will have all she herself did not. Her daughter has grown up in luxury – she has attended the best schools and knows the right kind of people. I believe it is a solid mother/daughter relationship, although there certainly is friction at times. Faith, like other mothers, wrestles with separating from her daughter.
SK: Did you set out to write a relatable main character in Faith? What do you consider to be her most appealing qualities?
SM: I do view Faith as a relatable protagonist. While she is someone with a past, a secret and ambition, she is also a moral person and with keen instincts and survival skills. These are qualities that I admire in women.
Vintage Tales, her shop on Worth Avenue, is very much her creation. She is deeply invested in it. Her pride in this project and the fact that she runs a business sets her apart from the nonworking women in Palm Beach. It also earns their respect and friendship. As a wife and mother, Faith is loyal and true. She is a good wife and a good mother, she believes in her family.
SK: I am always fascinated by women who re-invent themselves, as Faith did, and wrote about such a woman, Sheilah Graham, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lover, in my last novel, Another Side of Paradise. What qualities do you think are required for a woman, against high odds, to craft a new persona?
SM: Crafting a new persona is not for the cowardly– especially for women. It takes total confidence in oneself, a belief in the “cause,” a strong will and a desire to escape. In A Palm Beach Wife, we learn that Faith has overcome the odds before. Not that she ever wanted to do it again, or that she hadn’t long buried her past, but she does have the artistry to get through. Thus when she is faced with adversity, it conjures up her inner strength – and goes beyond the Palm Beach system. No spoiler here, but Faith is a character who has to face herself and her own inner creed, her authenticity. This is what contributes to personal triumph for women.
SK: Why do you think a mass audience will think of Faith, whom when we meet her is a 1-percenter who cares acutely about the nuances of Palm Beach social position and conspicuous consumption?
SM: We live in a materialistic, capitalistic world where social media reports constantly on celebrity culture. We live vicariously through their luxurious lifestyles – and often, if apt, appreciate how they have gotten there. In A Palm Beach Wife, Palm Beach becomes a character in the novel– the actual place and customs are seducers.
Faith wants to be in the game – she goes for “the life” with her elegant shop, Vintage Tales, her handsome husband and accomplished daughter. She has fought long and hard for her position, she is both a player and someone who paid her dues to get there. It is when she is about to be undone that we learn her mettle, and realize her truth. What Faith does for preservation is what drives the story and why the audience appreciates her.
SK: You describe Palm Beach as “a jewel box” where residents “choose not be absorbed by current maladies, climate change, tornadoes, political strife and other tragedies.” Why was Faith drawn to this environment?
SM: Palm Beach offers a rarified existence. When there is such privilege and money is not an issue, it insulates people against the permutations of life. Faith is a closet victim of the maladies of an ordinary existence, however – and has known loss. Being in Palm Beach has been a form of amnesia and she has been fine with this. Who wouldn’t love her magnificent home and gardens, her shop on the Avenue, her wardrobe? Until the novel begins, Faith has been able to anesthetize herself– and that has been fine for her. Yet from the start of the book, circumstances change and she no longer can pull this off. That is when she has to dig deep, face herself and save her family.
SK: It must have been fun to research the details about designer clothes, shoes, handbags, jewelry, watches, electronics, linens, tableware and furnishings that appear on almost every page of A Palm Beach Wife. How did you do that?
SM: I’m a researcher at heart and so I enjoyed including these details in the novel. Having been in Palm Beach every year of my life in season, I am familiar with the clothes, trends, jewelry, handbags, parties, menus, table settings. And I was pleased that it worked as part of the novel. My mother was a source too, since she was such a Palm Beacher, invested in looks, styles, what is vogue. I’d fly down to visit and she would tell me exactly what one could wear or not wear. Whenever I was there, she and I would walk on Worth Avenue to shop and invariably we would run into women friends, and we appraised each other immediately. Two years ago I was going shopping with a best friend and she told me my dress was two inches too long for a walk in town. She encouraged me to change my outfit.
SK: If you were lunching at one of Palm Beach’s lovely restaurants, which three women would you invite? What would you order?
SM: I would choose Taboo for lunch. I would order deviled eggs and the beet and arugula salad and their apple cobbler. I’d eat at least two of their rolls with butter and I’d be looking all around the restaurant, appreciating the buzz and energy.
I would choose to invite three authors who are no longer with us: Edith Wharton – to talk about her keenly honed characters, Kate Chopin, to discuss sexual freedom for women, and Elizabeth Gaskell, to defend her clear social representations of her day—and what her female characters yearn for.
SK: What’s the best thing about Palm Beach? The worst?
SM: The drive along the A1A, with the mansions on one side and the beach and ocean to the east is exquisite. Worth Avenue is unlike any other shopping street, dipping in an out of the vias is charming. The Society of the Four Arts, the events at Kravis, Classic Books, the Palm Beach Book Festival, the restaurants, the Lake Trail, The Breakers Hotel, the Colony. The shrubs, the serenity of the place. Others would add the golf courses and tennis–.
The weather can be iffy in mid-winter. One always arrives in Palm Beach expecting to have endless sunshine when in reality, South Florida weather is changeable, especially during the winter months.
SK: What’s next?
SM: Another novel.
A Palm Beach Wife is now available for purchase.
About Susannah Marren
Susannah Marren has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, The Chicago Tribune, Elle, ‘O’, and Marie Claire. She has appeared on national television including The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS, CNN, and MSNBC. She has been a guest on NPR and Sirius Radio and speaking appearances include Credit Suisse, Bayer Diagnostics, UBS, United Way and the Society of the Four Arts. Several of her titles have been optioned by Lifetime and HBO.
For over two decades she has taught in the Writing Department at Marymount Manhattan College where her focus is on gender studies and has guest taught in the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. She has served as a literary panelist for the New York State Council on the Arts, as a judge for the International Emmys and as Vice Chair of the Mentoring Committee of the Women’s Leadership Board at the JFK School of Government, Harvard.
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