By Katherine Arthaud, Contributor
It is officially summer, I heard someone say the other day. Summer—a time to swim and walk, sit on the back porch, boat, play tennis, recline in shade-dappled hammocks, paddleboard, read…. Plus, the world is opening up, and there’s a lot of joy in all of that. I hope you are all enjoying yourselves.
I don’t know about you, but in the summer months I tend to gravitate to books that are a little lighter, a little less demanding. The books I am going to tell about today are largely like that. Summer reads. Beach reads. With one exception.
I will begin with the exception. Want by Lynn Steger Strong is not exactly a lighthearted read, and though I would not have a problem reading it on a beach (I can read anything on a beach), I would not categorize it as a “beach” read. Because for narrator Elizabeth, life is not easy. Mother, daughter, wife, teacher of under-served kids in an under-served school, stealth Instagram stalker, intellectual, depressive, runner, reader, clandestine eater of gummy worms, city-dweller, soon to be bankrupt person, Elizabeth is in the process of…well, of surviving, mostly. We get to know Elizabeth by being party to the mundanities, observances, emotions and anxieties of her day-to-day life: her 4:45 a.m. runs along the water in the freezing rain (the occasional rat running across her sneakers), riding the subway, dealing with co-workers and workplace disappointment, wrangling kids, making love to her husband, counseling students. But the theme that stands out among other themes—the thread that is most noticeable among all the other threads here—is her friendship with Sasha, whom she has lost touch with over the years but with whom she becomes, over the course of the novel, reconnected. “I was thirteen and she was fourteen and we were high school freshmen. A boy I thought I loved loved her, and I stayed on the phone with him sometimes late at night discussing her. I think I thought that if I listened hard or well or long enough he’d love me instead. Instead, they broke up, and he stopped calling. And then there she was. I knew everything about her that any breathing person would love, the way she felt and talked as if she were a grown-up; the way she was smart but also pretty but also didn’t care enough about being cool to use the power that she should have had to have more friends. Whether I wanted to love or have or just to be her never felt as easily discernible as this or that, one of the other—more like all of it, and then more, at once.”
“We felt so much aligned,” Elizabeth muses, “during the day, at home, alone, walking down the street. We were the same age, from the same place, equally unrelenting, depressive, bookish. But the shape of her face, the way clothes hung on her body, her perfect skin, the largeness of her eyes: we were such completely separate things.”
Elizabeth’s life is largely a struggle. Her mother is a piece of work (“She’s the only person in the world who can say my name and make it mean.”), her job is difficult and pretty much thankless (though she really loves her students), and a lot of her memories and flashbacks regarding Sasha are painful and humiliating. Yet there is a depth, honesty and groundedness about Elizabeth. She is doggedly loyal, intelligent and engaging, and (not to spoil the adventure of reading this for yourself) her story ends rather unexpectedly on a note of hope. I remember my own best friend in elementary school tattooing on her denim spiral notebook in ballpoint pen: “Life is a bitch and then you die.” Sometimes it seemed this book is heading in that direction. But in the end, I did not find that to be the final takeaway. After all, there is something rich, honest and deeply engaging about listening to someone tell it like is, even when life is a bitch. Elizabeth loves who she loves, and she lets herself be loved, and she keeps it real. Yes, we can be “awful and ungrateful,” as Elizabeth admits she feels at times. But there’s more to the story. There is the courage of getting up in the morning and lacing up our sneakers even when it’s raining and there are rats skittering about on the sidewalk. There is motherhood, marriage, connection, friendships, work, family, hardship and sometimes, however improbably and unanticipated, genuine human connection. There is grace. Want might not be a beach read, but I highly recommend checking it out and spending some time with Elizabeth.
On a lighter, airier note, we have Elin Hilderbrand’s newest Nantucket novel, Golden Girl. Many know that I’m a fan of this author, and of this island, so as you might imagine, I snatched this one up as soon as I heard it had hit the shelves. Okay, okay, so Hilderbrand is not Dostoevsky, but hey, her books are summery and light and fun and very hard to put down. This one begins on a most unusual note in a most unusual place, which (I might as well tell you like it is ― I don’t think it will ruin anything, as it is something one discovers on page one) is: heaven. And though most of the novel takes place on Nantucket, it does return now and again to heaven, which in this case is a boho-chic, striped green room with one wall missing (for viewing), layered rugs on the floor, and a Moroccan lantern casting dancing lace patterns of light on the ceiling.
One might accuse this author of being a tad self-indulgent in this, her 27th novel, as the main character, Vivi—beloved, amazing mother of three; beloved, amazing author of multiple beach novels—bears more than a rough resemblance to Hilderbrand herself, but I forgive her everything. She has never let me down, never failed to transport and entertain me and animate the island I love with characters who are lovable, imperfect, colorful and pretty much believable most of the time. Hail to Hilderbrand, queen of the beach read!
Also on the lighter side of things is Jennifer Weiner’s That Summer, in which we encounter Mainline Philadelphia’s Daisy Shoemaker, whose life is pretty satisfactory and unextraordinary, but she isn’t sleeping well, and something is definitely off. Things begin heating up when she starts receiving emails meant for another person whose address is uncannily similar to her own. While Daisy is cooking meals for her family and driving her daughter hither and yon, Diana is jetting around the world and reorganizing corporations. Eventually the two women connect, and that is when the drama begins to sizzle in the pan. Weiner takes us back in time, to events that occurred in both Diana and Daisy’s pasts: painful, unfinished things…broken dreams, unforeseen twists in the road, etc. Some heavy themes here, but there is always something breezy and wholesome in Jennifer Weiner’s storytelling. Definitely recommend this one for hammock, beach or any old place.
Lightest but not least is Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Malibu Rising, which I coincidentally read recently on a trip to California. This book is somewhat preposterous at times and a tad cliché, but (don’t judge me) I really enjoyed it. It begins in August of 1983 on the day of gorgeous surfer/super-model Nina Riva’s annual end-of-summer party. (Are you still with me?) Beautiful Nina—daughter of legendary star crooner Mick Riva and sister of Jay, Hud and Kit—has just been very publicly abandoned by her pro tennis-player husband, so rather understandably she isn’t much looking forward to the upcoming soiree at her swanky modern mansion by the sea. No surprise, the party turns out to be a rager, with people literally swinging on a crystal chandelier in the wee hours, a gunshot or two, and a lot of broken plates. Not to mention some surprise appearances and a host of secrets and interpersonal dramas to stir up the plot and keep things hopping. Taylor takes us back in time to Nina’s parents’ growing-up years, back before anyone was rich or famous, before Malibu was a celebrity hotspot, back to when Nina’s innocent, hardworking mother and young Mick fell in love and decided to create a life together. Lots of acting out and skeletons in the closet in this one, but in the end, there is some pretty serious coming to terms with what is authentic and what is not. I guess that’s around when the house bursts into flames. Gotta be honest, I did enjoy this one. Light, yet compelling. Great book for the beach and turbulent and amusing enough for the airplane ride there.