Miami conjures evocative pictures of color, allure, and drama, like Las Vegas on the water. Because of this, Susanna Daniels’ Stiltsville, set in Miami, is even more surprising. Stiltsville, to borrow again from Philip Larkin, is an “ordinary sane novel about ordinary sane people doing ordinary sane things.” This novel is simply about an ordinary married couple, Francis and Dennis, who live in Miami and experience life together.
What makes Stiltsville more than ordinary, however, is its perspective on love, perhaps the most unexplainable and powerful of human emotions. Love is, as Dennis explained, “like the electric eel, coiled wherever it happens to live, unflappable and ready to strike. We want to mess with it, but we can’t.” The inexplicable nature of love is frightening. Finding love, falling in love … it’s all somewhat beyond our control, and even when we’ve found it, it remains beyond us. We may be able to nurture love, but we can never fully control it. And because of that, when one finds true love, it’s almost as if everything else that happens is inevitable.
In Stiltsville, Francis travels from her hometown of Atlanta to Miami for a wedding. There she unexpectedly befriends a local woman, Marse, who invites Francis to go boating the next day before leaving town. Marse and Francis meet up with Marse’s brother and his friend, Dennis—the boy Marse has told Francis she intends to start dating. Despite Marse’s intentions, something sparks between Dennis and Francis, and they share conversation and a kiss. At the end of their first kiss on the day they first meet, Francis (the novel’s narrator) admits, “We could feel even then that we were at the beginning of something, I think—something that might go on and on before it ended.”
Related to love’s mystery is its inevitableness. Is it possible that two people can fall in love so deeply and so quickly that the couple knows they’ll marry each other, almost from the beginning? Francis thinks it is. As she puts it, “Dennis seemed, from the start, inevitable.” Such a feeling is a wonderful, blissful realization.
Yet it’s also frightening—“like falling with no net. It felt good, but it did not feel wise.” And so there are brief moments of panic and confusion as Francis is swept away:
Dennis saw me and waved, and as he walked toward me, in the moment between being alone and being with him, I experienced the sensation of being stunned by the instant. The breath left my lungs. I looked at the boy coming toward me, who in my arms, by my side, seemed familiar, but in those baffling seconds revealed himself to be a stranger, essentially. It was like moving too quickly toward a painting, such that it distorts in proximity. Was this person my boyfriend? This lanky gait, this lazy posture, this wide smile? He reached me finally, and swept me into a hug that seemed to start before he was even beside me, and the moment of disorientation I’d experienced dissolved, the painting snapped back into perspective.
Unsurprisingly, accompanying love’s inevitability is a distinct lack of ability to make an affirmative choice to marry. After all, that “choice” was made unconsciously long ago. What follows in Stiltsville is as predictable as it is inevitable: six months after they first met, Francis moves to Miami to marry Dennis. When he proposes, her answer is a foregone conclusion: “as if it were the only answer I could give, the only answer available to me, I said yes.”
The novel is also tragic. I will not spoil it for you, but suffice it to say, because we lack control and agency over love, we are forever beholden to its whimsy, inexplicableness, and its cruel twists. An early line—“we were at the beginning of something . . . something that might go on and on before it ended—” predicted that their story had to end, and the ending broke my heart.
This novel may not be about exciting events or drama. But while its happenings are quite ordinary, the couple’s great love for each other is not: “I had no idea then [at the time of their wedding] what would happen to my love, what nourishment it would receive, how mighty it would grow.” It is this love—the display of it, the discovery, exploration, and utter enjoyment of it—which colors every happening of this novel and makes Stiltsville so extraordinary.