By Katherine Arthaud
Hello, again. It seems like awhile since my last article, but who knows…time seems a bit hard to keep track of lately. I find that one day often kind of blends into another, and if pressed I frequently couldn’t tell you the date or day of the week. This is not altogether a bad thing, perhaps, but it can be embarrassing. What have you all been reading? Like the days, it almost seems like the books I have read in the past few weeks are blending into one another also—titles, pages and characters mixing in a misty, green, cut-grass-scented summer haze…I really should keep some kind of list.
One book I read that does stand out for me—it helps that it happens to be sitting on my kitchen counter—is 28 Summers by Elin Hilderbrand. Okay, okay, it probably won’t go down in the annals of great literature, but I am not ashamed to admit that I am an ardent and devoted fan of not only this book, but all of Elin Hilderbrand’s novels. I probably never would have picked up any of her books if not for Elizabeth at the Flying Pig, who many years ago found me wandering the aisles of her store and gently steered me towards the rack where a paperback version of one of Hilderbrand’s many novels was sitting. She told me that though the cover might look beachy and frivolous and possibly a tad unworthy of serious attention, the writing is good, and she suggested I give it a whirl. I did and was hooked. As I have explained in articles past, most of Hilderbrand’s books take place on the island of Nantucket (where I first visited in 1998 and instantly fell in love). Nantucket is once again the setting of 28 Summers. I cannot begin to tell how much I enjoyed this book. I don’t know if you have had this experience (it happened to me while reading the Harry Potter series), but I found myself enjoying myself enjoying it—if that makes any sense. Like an extraordinary dish of ice cream or a particularly spectacular sunset or a seaside outdoor lobster dinner, I savored it, every delicious page, every beautiful paragraph, and loved the experience of loving it.
Mallory Blessing—whose eyes “were bluish green or greenish blue; they changed, like the color of the ocean”— is the heroine here, and, not to spoil it for you, the plot has to do with a secret romance that involves two individuals meeting once a year, for (you guessed it) 28 years, on Labor Day weekend, at a cottage on Nantucket, similar to what happens in the movie Same Time Next Year starring Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda. There are many twists and turns, romantic liaisons, misunderstandings, tiffs and close calls to add spice and intrigue to the narrative. Oh, and by the way, you don’t have to have read any of the numerous preceding Hilderbrand novels to enjoy this one. You can start anywhere, with any one of these books. And, really, they are all delightful.
So, if you love beaches and wholesome racy romance and easy, breezy, happy summer reading, and are looking for an effective escape from reality: don’t miss 28 Summers. Warning, though: this book really makes one crave the ocean. When I began chapter one, I had zero plans to go to Nantucket. “It would be insane to go during a pandemic,” I told people when they asked if I had any plans of making my yearly pilgrimage. There was no way. Not with COVID, I said. But by the time I had finished page 422, I had booked my ferry tickets and was looking into renting a Jeep. I couldn’t resist. Those heavenly beaches…that oxygen-rich island air…those rolling waves…those Madaket sunsets…How could I not go? There is absolutely something magical about the place. Have you ever been? It’s not for everyone. It’s expensive and not easy to get to, and it can get mighty and maddeningly crowded in the summers. But love is love. At some point in this novel, Hilderbrand floats the idea that the island has a way of choosing its people. “The island chooses people, Aunt Great said. It chose Bo and me, and I think it’s chosen you as well.” And for one of the characters, the island actually speaks to him, whispering to him, “Home, home,” reminding him where he belongs.
Another fun thing about this book are the chapter headers that list some of the things that happened that year. (The book starts in 1993: “Waco, Texas; the World trade Center bombing; Arthur Ashe; R.E.M.; Lorena Bobbitt; Robert Redford, Woody Harrelson, and Demi Moore … Whitney Houston singing ‘I Will Always Love You.’” Apparently Hilderbrand got this idea from the movie Same Time Next Year, which has photo montages of news clips introducing each year. “I can do that too,” Hilderbrand said, in an interview with The Amazon Book Review. “I went back through the news, picked one movie, one TV show, one song, the food trends, the exercise trends, the people who died, the innovations.” Right before the final version was turned in, Hilderbrand was able to add COVID-19—she had anticipated that the only thing people would be talking about in 2020 was the election. Ha. I was particularly interested to hear her response to a question interviewer Sarah Gelman posed regarding the challenges of writing sympathetic characters who are committing adultery. (Adultery is a rather common theme in Hilderbrand’s novels.) “It’s always the hardest thing,” Hilderbrand answered. “Sting (or someone like Sting) once said something like, ‘There are two kinds of songs. One song is “I love you,” and that’s a good song. The other song is “I love you but you love someone else,” and that’s a better song.’” It’s hard to write a compelling novel without people behaving badly, Hilderbrand says. (She explained that she generally stays away from the murderers and rapists and sticks with the adulterers.) “The way to create sympathetic characters regardless of what bad things they do is to love them. Just love them and instill them with humanity.”
Well, whatever she thinks and however she does what she does and wherever she gets her bewitching touch, if you ask me, Elin Hilderbrand pulls it all off beautifully. She is truly the queen of the beach read. And this most recent novel does not disappoint. I will read and re-read her books forever, and as long as I am able, will likely return to the island that, summer after summer, seems to call my name.