REVIEWS FOR FORT STARLIGHT!
THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, DEC 15, 2013 - HOLY SMOKES!!!
Sun-beaten stretches of wetlands, empty real estate dreams and a duplicitous developer bring together a mismatched cast of lost souls in Zuluaga’s entertaining debut. The recently named town of the novel’s title — located in southeastern Florida, just past the turnpike’s vehicular hum — is populated with half-completed ranch houses, snapping turtles, heavy-eyed alligators and a lonely strip mall. The opening pages introduce 24-year-old Ida Overdorff, who ventures to Fort Starlight from upstate New York, having randomly purchased a quarter-acre from a magazine ad six years earlier. “The wet heat of Florida in July cannot possibly be real,” Ida thinks as she is driven through the area for the first time. “Neither can the haze rising from the black street. Or the turtle, crawling across the road like a broken toy running out of batteries. There is no reason to take any of it in. She’ll be leaving again before any detail can leave an impression.”
Ida intends to sell her property at a profit so she can relocate to New York City and pursue her ambition of becoming a professional baker. But left with no check and no money after a crooked transaction, she must figure out how to pay for her return trip. In the process, she befriends several other floundering residents of the semi-developed neighborhood: a gay couple negotiating a rough spell in their relationship, a part-time grocery-store cashier caring for her terminally ill grandniece, a real estate heir who renounces his father’s wealth to
live in a tree house, and a pair of neglected brothers who rove the abandoned streets and untamed woods.
“Fort Starlight” is a moving story of half-recovered dreams and reconfigurations of pseudo-families, but Zuluaga’s prose is strongest when she writes about the intersections of nature and man in this strange pocket of Florida. “She sees a dark flash out of the corner of her eye. Another,” Ida observes during a tropical storm. “The tar shingles on the roof fly off in chunks of two and three, sailing up into the dark sky, headed elsewhere. Ida moves faster, reaching the house and quickly closing the door behind her, leaning against it, catching her breath.”
Zuluaga’s absorbing, expertly written debut explores the intersection of dreams and reality in the bizarre wilderness of Florida’s wetlands. Ida Overdorff, 24, is just passing through the stalled development of Fort Starlight to sell a piece of land before moving to New York City to make it big as a professional baker. But when a corrupt developer takes off with her money, she has to contend with having her future placed on hold. Living in an abandoned and unfinished house, Ida encounters an equally adrift cast of characters: Peter, a rich man’s son escaping his legacy; Nancy, who has put off retirement to care for her terminally ill great-niece; Carter and Donnie, a pair of dirty and neglected children; and Ryan and Lloyd, a gay couple on the rocks who offer Ida real friendship. Ida struggles to recover from her mistakes, and while Fort Starlight doesn’t offer much besides swamps and alligators, it lends her newfound perspective and a lesson that blessings can come in unexpected places and people. This novel explores well-tread territory, but its unusual setting in a stillborn real-estate development sets it apart. Zuluaga’s portrayal of what happens to dreams deferred is beautifully executed.
In her first novel, Pushcart nominee Zuluaga transports her readers to Fort Starlight, a Florida community founded on little more than hopes and promises. Ida Overdorff invested $1000 in a plot of land near the budding city on a whim. Chronically poor, she’s delighted when local land developers contact her with an offer to more than double her investment. She spends the last of her savings getting to Florida to make good on the deal, but when she’s handed a rubber check and left to her own devices, she finds herself stranded with nothing to her name but a plot of land she’s never seen. She soon finds she’s not the only one in Fort Starlight waiting for fate to deal her a new hand. When a tropical storm abruptly brings Ida and her neighbors together, the many ways in which they can help each other are revealed. Zuluaga’s prose is delicate and artful, creating inviting depths from which each reader can draw his or her own meaning.