Penguin's summary of the book said, "From the time she was twelve, Julie Holt knew what a random tragedy can do to a family. At that tender age, her little sister disappeared-never to be found. It was a loss that slowly eroded the family bonds she once relied on. As an adult with a prestigious job in the arts, Julie meets a struggling artist who reminds her so much of her sister, she can't help feeling protective. It is a friendship that begins a long and painful process of healing for Julie, leading her to a house on the Gulf Coast, ravaged by hurricane Katrina, and to stories of family that take her deep into the past."
Frankly, that doesn't tell you much about the book. For starters, it leads you to expect that the story you'll be reading is about Julie's loss and what how her family erodes. Not so much.
This is a book about three generations of women (or girls) who disappear, and the mysteries behind those disappearances.
Julie Holt's sister disappeared when Julie was twelve. In some ways, Julie blamed herself, as kids are wont to do, and thus she devoted much of her life to finding her sister. Despite developing a bright career in the arts in Philadelphia, she spent every night poring over all of the internet sites with information about missing people, or missing children instead of building a vital life of her own. She stayed in contact with the detective assigned to her sister's case until he retired, and then with the detective who took over the long cold case. Her life revolved around hunting for her sister.
Eventually, she met Monica... a woman who had left her own family for reasons that she never told Julie. I find it a tad difficult to believe that Julie, who had devoted her life to finding the sister who had disappeared so long ago, would be so accepting of Monica's decision to leave her family wondering what happened to her, but that acceptance is necessary to the rest of the story. Over time, Julie and Monica became such close friends that when Monica died of a heart condition, she left a will which gave Julie Monica's share of a house on the beach in Biloxi, Mississippi, and made her guardian of Monica's five year old son. She also left Julie a painting ... a painting of Monica's great grandmother, who also disappeared, leaving her family many years before.
The Beach Trees is the story of how Julie, unable to find her sister, unable to solve the mystery of that missing child, is eventually able to resolve the mysteries of two other missing women whose ties to her family are half a century old. It is also a story of rebuilding, and rediscovery.
We meet Julie as she's on the road, having abandoned her career in favor of taking care of the five year old son of and heading towards Biloxi, Mississippi to find this house. Upon arrival, Julie discovers that the house had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. She then seeks out a woman that Monica had told her to find, where she is given the original painting by Abe Holt -- a painting of Julie's great grandfather.
Now the story really begins. Julie meets the rest of Monica's family, including Monica's brother (who owns half the house) and grandmother, Aimee. She learns about Monica's past, and discovers that her own great-grandfather painted the portrait of Monica's great-grandmother, which Monica left to her. She meets the people who have lived and worked with Monica's family since Aimee was young, and learns the secrets that bind them to Monica's family.
As Julie learns Aimee's story, and discovers the mystery of Monica's great-grandmother's disappearance, she also works with Monica's brother to rebuild the house in Biloxi. As Julie learns to understand the meaning of home and family in a new way, she comes to understand why people rebuild after hurricanes. Over time, she and Aimee slowly put together all of the pieces of the puzzles of the past, ultimately discovering what happened to Monica's great grandmother, and why Monica ran from her family.
In these stories, we see New Orleans of today, and of the 1950's when the Mardis Gras Crewes were still in their hey day. White's descriptions of New Orleans are not as vivid as some, but still invoke the city for those who know it.
This is a quietly satisfying book. In the end, we still do not know what has happened to Julie's sister. But Julie, at least, is at peace with not knowing.