It is October on the Outer Banks. A late hurricane is threatening to wash away the beaches and blow down the old wooden houses that have been family treasures for generations. The Boston Red Sox are struggling to make the playoffs.
This sounds real, but it is the setting for compelling new fiction, “The Last First Kiss,” a book by former lawyer, judge and law professor Walter Bennett. He lives in Chapel Hill with his wife Betsy, the former director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
If you are past retirement age, and sometimes wonder what your life would have been like if, instead of breaking up with your high school sweetheart, you all had married and lived a different — an entirely different — life and if sometimes your imagination takes you back 50 or 60 years, and memories of those tender times make you blush, if that is you, maybe you should not read this book.
If you do, it could set your heart ablaze in a dangerous way.
But if you pass this book by, you will miss some of the best writing to come out of the recent North Carolina literary scene.
The central character, Ace Sinclair, 75, is a retired Raleigh lawyer whose wife died a few years ago. As the book begins, he is sitting in an old family chair on the porch of his family’s oceanfront vacation house at Pomeiooc Island, a fictional Outer Banks location.
Recently, he has been exchanging email messages with his high school sweetheart, J’nelle, his “first true love.”
He has not seen her, except for glances at high school reunions, since their breakup when she went away to college.
A few years ago when he learned that J’nelle’s husband had disappeared mysteriously, their off-and-on email correspondence began. It has now led her to accept his invitation to spend a weekend with him on Pomeiooc Island. He has no secret plan to seduce her but—well, you’ll have to read the book
Hurricane Freya, although uninvited, will join the reunion and is making its way up the coast headed directly towards Pomeiooc.
All the action occurs within one weekend. The action is mostly conversations and those conversations sometimes pick up history, a lot of history, all the way back to their high school romance and all the years since.
As the author lets us hear their conversations, the revealing is painful but tender and shows how much each is seeking to reach out.
Ace remembers painfully some of his best trial performances, cross examinations that were perfectly appropriate legally, but which Ace feels tragically destroyed his client’s accuser.
J’nelle‘s disastrous relationship with her daughter is painful even though we know it’s fiction.
Most poignant are the stories of how they hurt each other when they were teenagers.
Their conversations over this one weekend teach them as much about each other as some couples learn only after many years together. On the other hand, thoughtful readers may find that they know more about Ace and J’nelle than the couple knows about each other.
Notwithstanding the strong storyline constructed by the author, his beautiful writing is the star of the show. For example, read Bennett’s description of the Outer Banks setting: “The aqua-blue water stretches before them, tipped in silver by the midday sun. An arm of the sound wraps around the point where they sit and cuts into the island through the marsh of mauve-tented needlegrass and gray yaupon. Lazy waves, loaded with bits of splintered wooden plastic, a small beach ball, and the ragged remnants of a crab net with the buoy still attached, slosh against the bank at their feet. Amidst the debris, the carcass of a white pelican, a wreck of bony wings and beak, gently rises and falls.”
Read it for the story. Read it for the writing. Read it to stir you own old memories.
Just read it.