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Wednesday, December 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 21.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Characters in Susanna Daniel's Stiltsville merely float
Treading water
Daniel's attention to detail is almost pointillist.
Daniel's attention to detail is almost pointillist.

Stiltsville is a real place, a tiny huddle of homes built on platforms and spindly legs sunk into the hurricane-threatened waters of Biscayne Bay, off the coast of Miami. Stiltsville the novel is equally precarious, an insubstantial structure of largely inconsequential events that creak and groan on a flimsy foundation.

First-time novelist, and Madisonian, Susanna Daniel writes in an easygoing, engaging style and offers some perceptive and frequently poignant observations about marriage, parenthood and friendship. But, as her protagonist and narrator Frances Ellerby says, "we listing each feature, struggling towards perspective," and that, in a nutshell, describes the novel.

Daniel's attention to detail is almost pointillist, although stepping back from the canvas fails to reveal a more cohesive picture. Rather, her minutely detailed observations serve as substitutes for any dramatic arc in a narrative that begins with a sigh and ends with a whimper. There is an almost Zen quality to Daniel's storytelling. Her minimalist use of language and her sparse symbolism have a certain elegance, but she frequently borders on the soporific; mundane domesticity and life-threatening catastrophes are all given equal attention.

The story unfolds around the lives of Frances and her family - husband Dennis, daughter Margo - and her best friend Marse in south Florida over the period from 1969 to 1993. Daniel focuses on specific days, rather than entire years, which keeps the story more intimate, and she weaves actual events - the 1980 Miami race riots, hurricane Andrew in 1992 - into her story with differing results.

Yet the central characters are oddly distanced from their own lives and seem to exist in a strange limbo of frustrated ambitions. People almost have affairs, children almost have traumatic experiences, a package bobbing in the water almost has dangerous consequences. Until the devastating illness that occupies the final quarter of the book appears, only the peripheral characters endure any notable experiences: a neighboring family suffers a heartbreaking loss, a college town is terrorized by a mass-murderer.

The floating quality of the characters' lives matches the story's physical environment (which, incidentally, is beautifully rendered), but it leads to an unsatisfying experience for the reader. A particular device that Daniel uses is reminiscent of Dennis' love of fishing: She baits a hook with the promise of a juicy revelation, then reels the line back in after a few teasing nibbles, only to leave us disappointed that there is no catch.

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