Novelist, environmental conservationist. Born on May 25, 1951, in Evanston, Illinois, Monroe is the daughter of Werner Monroe, a pediatrician, and his wife Elayne. Monroe grew up in the Chicago suburbs with four sisters and five brothers. She attended the Ted Liss Studio for Performing Arts in Chicago and studied journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. In 1972 she married Markus Kruesi, a child psychiatrist. Inspired by her honeymoon trip to Japan, she pursued a B.A. in Asian studies and Japanese from Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. Monroe went on to receive her M.A. in education from Seton Hall.
Prior to her career as an author, Monroe worked as an assistant to the general editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, spent time as a teacher, and helped establish a program to teach English as a second language to southeast Asian refugees. In 1980 she co-wrote her first nonfiction work, Crossroads to Literacy, which served as a guide to help immigrants acclimate to life in the United States. Monroe’s first foray into fiction occurred in 1995. Confined to bed rest during her third pregnancy, Monroe was encouraged by her husband to take up the pen. The result was her first novel, The Long Road Home.
Monroe’s early fiction, including The Long Road Home (1995), The Girl in the Mirror (1998), The Book Club (1999), and The Four Seasons (2001), evokes themes of strong women with personal struggles who overcome tragedy and develop healing interpersonal relationships.
In 1999 Markus Kruesi accepted a job at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, and the family relocated to the Isle of Palms. During this time, Monroe’s work evolved from formulaic women’s fiction to more mature, textured narratives. Notably, Monroe’s works also shifted to focus on environmental themes. Marking a considerable development in her evolution as a novelist, her writings began to blend both women’s fiction with environmental messages and metaphors—thus tying together her life as a writer and conservationist. First seen in her southern fiction debut, The Beach House (2002), Monroe artfully blends the emotional dynamics of a mother-daughter relationship with a conservationist’s efforts to protect endangered loggerhead sea turtles.
Embracing her adopted home, Monroe has set most of her novels since 1999 in the Carolinas. To add authenticity to her stories, Monroe conducts research by immersing herself in the real worlds of her novels. In preparation for her novel Skyward (2003), a romance set in a birds of prey rescue center, Monroe volunteered at the Center for Birds of Prey of the Avian Conservation Center in Awendaw, South Carolina. For her 2005 novel Sweetgrass, Monroe learned the craft of the lowcountry’s African American sweetgrass basket makers. Expanding her knowledge regarding loggerhead sea turtles, Monroe volunteered at the South Carolina Aquarium’s sea turtle rehabilitation program to research Swimming Lessons (2007), a volume that marked a return to the characters and Isle of Palms setting of The Beach House. For her New York Times bestseller, Last Light over Carolina (2009), Monroe embedded herself into the local shrimping culture.
In rare contrast to her now-customary Carolina lowcountry setting, Monroe’s 2008 release Time is a River takes place near Asheville, North Carolina, and tells the story of a breast cancer survivor’s retreat to a mountain cabin and subsequent discovery of an unsolved mystery. The protagonist sets about simultaneously unlocking the mystery and advancing her own journey to recovery. Monroe’s New York Times bestseller, The Butterfly’s Daughter (2011), follows four women along the migration path of the monarch butterfly between Wisconsin and Mexico. This coming-of-age story focuses on the spiritual journey of the main protagonist, Luz Avila, as she carries her grandmother’s ashes to Mexico. Winner of the 2011 International Book Award in the category of “Fiction: Environmental/Green Fiction,” this title was also selected as a Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Book Award finalist.
With the 2012 release of Beach House Memories, Monroe completed a trilogy ten years in the making. Serving as the prequel to her novels Beach House and Swimming Lessons, Beach House Memories, set in 1974, examines the painful and passionate early life of the memorable character, Olivia “Lovie” Rutledge. Beach House Memories reached the New York Times bestseller list during its first week of release. Sullivan’s Island is the setting for Monroe’s latest book, The Summer Girls (2013), the tale of a savvy grandmother who contrives to use a summer sojourn to reunite her three granddaughters, all half sisters.
Writing under her married name Mary Alice Kruesi, Monroe published two romantic fantasy novels: Second Star to the Right (1999) and One Summer’s Night (2000). Both titles weave fairy tale fantasy worlds with romantic story lines. Monroe also published a children’s book, Turtle Summer: A Journal for My Daughter (2007) as a companion to her 2007 novel, Swimming Lessons. Teaching children about coastal conservation, this juvenile title eventually won several awards including the ASPCA Henry Bergh Award for 2007 and the Children’s Book Council Award.
Monroe has received numerous honors for her work, including the South Carolina Center for the Book Award for Fiction. Multiple novels have appeared on both the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. While not originally from the Carolina coast, Monroe has been embraced by the community and given the title “Queen of Lowcountry Fiction.” She is an active member of Charleston Volunteers for Literacy, sits on the board of the South Carolina Aquarium, and lives as a “turtle lady” on the Isle of Palms.
Epps, Edwin. Literary South Carolina. Spartanburg, S.C.: Hub City Writers Project, 2004. “Mary Alice Monroe.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2012.