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Book Review: A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams

A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams (Putnam Adult; 368 pages; $26.95).

a-hundred-summers2.jpgIf you prefer your summer reads served up with a side of a nostalgic New England coastal setting, old money, and old rivalries, then A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams should satisfy your literary cravings.  Williams’ second novel (her first was Overseas) is the perfect propulsive beach read.   Plot-driven, A Hundred Summers culminates in an explosive confrontation just as a powerful hurricane barrels down on an idyllic seafront community.  You will not be able to tear yourself away from these pages.

Williams skillfully alternates between present and past story arcs, creating and building suspense.  In 1938, the wealthy Lily Dane and her family summer at Seaview, Rhode Island, just as they have every summer for generations.  This season will not be as happy and restful as the others have been, though, as Budgie and Nick Greenwald have decided to make the island their summer home.  In tow is New York Yankees pitcher and ladies’ man Graham Pendleton.

Secrets and lies are about as plentiful in A Hundred Summers as salt water, sand, and cocktails.  In Williams’ 1931 story arc, she paints quite a different picture of these characters.  Lily and Budgie were the very best of friends, a united front.  Lily and Nick were in love and planned on getting married, while Budgie and Graham were hot and heavy.

In a flash, everything changes for Williams’ characters and we must unravel  truths from lies as we desperately search for what really happened.  Wholly engaging and entertaining, A Hundred Summers recalls the nostalgic aspects of Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather , where “summer” is a verb and green is the color of both money and of envy.

Both narratives lead to a stunning climax, compelling the reader forward through the murky and deep depths of this richly-imagined novel.  Williams’ love for the coast is on full display in A Hundred Summers as she navigates both the culture of moneyed islanders

Beatriz Williams

Beatriz Williams

and the history behind her tale.

The hurricane that comes roaring ashore and destroys the fictional community of Seaview is based on the Great New England Hurricane of 1938.  Williams explains the storm “thundered ashore without warning in the afternoon of September 21 [1938], killing over seven hundred people and felling over two billion trees.”  Incredibly, the forecast for the 21st called for sunshine and only a bit of wind in the afternoon.  The hurricane has always fascinated Williams, who tells me, “Nobody even knew a hurricane was on its way…What they got was a minimum Category 3 surge forcing a 15-20 foot surge that came in like a tsunami.”

Entertaining, intriguing, and well written, A Hundred Summers is this summer’s perfect beach or poolside accessory.  You will fall in love with these characters and never forget them.

You will wish you had an Aunt Julie, a flamboyant minor character and aunt to Lily who steals just about every scene she’s in.

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People Get Weird At Weddings

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf; 320 pages; $25.95).

 

            There are weddings, and then there are weddings.  Destination weddings.  Weekend weddings.  Lavish weddings.  Small weddings.  Weddings where drunken bridesmaids sleep with equally inebriated groomsmen.  Even Shotgun weddings where no one has to guess “is she or isn’t she?”  The wedding of Daphne Van Meter features a little of all of the above in Maggie Shipstead’s strong, hilarious debut novel Seating Arrangements, part social satire and part serious examination of a man’s mid-life crisis.

Shipstead is a California girl who sets her story on an exclusive New England island.  Although a wedding occurs in her tale, Shipstead’s story is not really about the ceremony itself; Shipstead is concerned with the events and details that lead up to the big day.

Daphne’s wedding is the social event of the season.  Daphne, though, can lie back on her beach towel and relax.  She is no blushing bride; Daphne is seven months pregnant.  Both Daphne’s parents and the groom’s parents pushed the couple into walking down the aisle pronto.  If his daughter had a child “out of wedlock,” Winn Van Meter “would die.”  If it had been up to Daphne, though, she would not have gotten married so soon. “If I really had my way,” Daphne confesses, “We’d wait a while so I wouldn’t have to be pregnant in the pictures.”  More than anything else, Daphne does not want to be a “fat bride.”  However, she acquiesces to her father, because she knows how much appearances matter to him.

Winn is truly the novel’s main character.  Winn Van Meter is a 59-year-old, Harvard-educated, wealthy WASP enduring a mid-life crisis.  As Shipstead writes, “people get weird at weddings,” and that is certainly true of Winn.

Shipstead, a 29-year-old woman, ably gets readers into the head of Winn using flashbacks and streams of consciousness.  She uses Winn to satirize New England’s upper-crust culture, but her writing turns serious and somber when we realize how alone Winn feels and how he just wants to be liked.

Seating Arrangements, in my view, is a metaphor.  Seating charts at weddings are complicated affairs.  Just ask Winn’s wife, Biddy, who agonizes over the seating arrangements.  Preparing them means enemies and exes may find themselves seated next to each other, although this is to be avoided at all costs.  Some guests will be downgraded to the “leftovers table.”  Winn prepares his own kind of seating arrangements in this novel as he takes stock of the people in his life: how they have rewarded him, remained loyal to him, disdained him, slighted him, and excluded him.  Nearing sixty, he places them in certain niches, exactly where he thinks they should belong.

Above all, Winn appreciates exclusivity; he yearns for it, in fact.  For that reason, he “summers” on private Waskeke island.  Only the very best will do for him and his family.  Tradition is important to Winn, just as it was imperative to his father.  While at Harvard, Winn joined the elite club called the “Ophidian.”  He worries an old rival, Jack Fenn, who did not get into the Ophidian, may be blackballing his acceptance into the “Pequod,” a privileged golf club.  “People,” Winn knows, “will go to great lengths for revenge on those who have excluded them.”

Worst of all, Winn fears his exclusion from the Pequod may have something to do with his younger daughter, Livia.  Since he spends a great deal of time worrying over what is correct and proper, he cannot help but wonder if his daughters are disparaging his good name.  Just look at Daphne, seven-months pregnant on her wedding day.  A similar, yet different, thing happened to Livia.  While at Harvard, Livia got pregnant by her boyfriend Teddy Fenn, the son of Winn’s would-be nemesis.  Winn went through the roof.  In the end, Livia got an abortion and Teddy broke up with her.  Winn worries this incident will forever bar him from gaining acceptance to the Pequod.  How he wishes for sons when he thinks of all his daughters have put him through.

Despite Winn’s preoccupation with appearances, he contemplates a fling with Agatha, one of Daphne’s bridesmaids.  Agatha is in her twenties and woos and is wooed by Winn.  For Winn, Agatha is like “the fountain of youth.”  He describes any romance the two would have as a “May-December” one.  Winn feels as though Agatha truly likes him and understands him, qualities he appreciates, especially in a young, beautiful woman.  He and his wife have grown apart, and he idolizes Agatha just as much as he idealizes her.  Agatha, though, has a roving eye and roving hands.

Hilarious scenes such as when Winn and Livia catch Agatha with a groomsman inflagrante delicto contrast sharply with the novel’s serene island setting.  Hoopla abounds in this tale, whether it is when Winn gets run over at the golf course and wonders if he can take advantage of the accident to get into the Pequod or when the groom’s brother causes a dead whale’s carcass to explode.  The whole novel makes for good social satire.  Shipstead’s intention is to make your mouth fall open agape while reading what someone said or did.

Interestingly, one of Shipstead’s characters also responds to the Van Meters in this way.  With uncanny and masterful ability, Shipstead shifts perspective in one chapter, showing how a situation or issue looks different based on one’s viewpoint, age, gender, and class.  Nowhere is this more apparent than when Shipstead writes for Dominique, a bridesmaid from Egypt.  Dominique has known Daphne and her family for years.  She knows how the Van Meters and others like them work: “They were set up to accommodate feigned ignorance, unspoken resentment, and repressed passion the way their houses had back stairways and rooms tucked away behind the kitchen for the feudal ghosts of their ancestors’ servants.”  Dominique was “surprised Winn had not leapt from a bridge or gutted himself with a samurai sword after his daughters got knocked up back to back.”  “Daphne’s condition,” Dominique thinks, “would be grandfathered into the boundaries of propriety by the wedding, but Livia’s phantom pregnancy, the missing buldge under her green dress at the front of the church, was a void that could not be satisfactorily filled in and smoothed over.”  In her view, Winn “had the Pequod to take his mind off things” and “set out on his quest for membership like Don Quixote without a Sancho.”

Dominique’s reaction is our reaction.  She is, by turns, fascinated by them and repulsed by them.  So are we.  But, Dominique does her duty.  She will be the supportive bridesmaid and keep her judgments to herself.  Perhaps Dominique’s character also symbolizes Shipstead herself.  Shipstead graduated from Harvard and met hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Van Meter-like families.  Maybe Dominique’s take on the Van Meters was exactly what Shipstead thought of the New England families she came into contact, obsessed with social status, elitism, and correctness.

            Seating Arrangments is THE read of the summer, but this is no fluff piece.  Shipstead constructs a many-layered story in the same way a baker creates a layered wedding cake or a designer sews a wedding gown.  There are layers upon layers, and we must peel them back chapter by chapter. There are debut novels, and then there are debut novels.  Messy, disorganized jumbles lacking cohesion.  Unrealized characters with nothing to drive them.  Settings that fall flat.  A plot that isn’t.  This is not one of those debut novels.

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Spotlight on Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements

My current read is “Seating Arrangements” by Maggie Shipstead.

Here is what J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine, has to say about Shipstead’s debut:

“Seating Arrangements is bursting with perfectly observed characters and unforgettable scenes. This gorgeous, wise, funny, sprawling novel about family, fidelity, and social class is the best book I’ve read in ages.

Beautifully set on an exclusive island off the coast of Cape Cod, Shipstead’s debut sparkles with all the enticements of summer: you can practically smell the sea salt and see the ferries coming into harbor overflowing with weekend guests and their brimming bags of sunscreen and champagne. With an irresistible mix of wit and tenderness, the novel tells the story of what happens when the illustrious Van Meter family—Winn, the obtuse and perennially optimistic patriarch; his wife Biddie, and their beautiful daughters Livia (recently jilted by the son of Winn’s oldest rival) and Daphne (the bride, seven months pregnant)–plan a wedding at their beloved island retreat. Shipstead captures a family on the brink of implosion, brilliantly contrasting the novel’s placid setting with the hilarity and chaos that ensue when Winn embarks on a dangerous game of seduction with his daughter’s most lissome bridesmaid.

Maggie Shipstead is a born novelist, and Seating Arrangements is both wickedly smart and impossible to put down, a true summer pleasure.”

Highly acclaimed author Richard Russo has also championed both Shipstead and her book.  With so many rave reviews, you can’t go wrong!

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Finding Your Own Starboard Sea

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont (St. Martin’s Press; 320 pages; $24.99).

            On the surface, Amber Dermont’s debut novel The Starboard Sea may seem superficial.  It is about a teenager from a wealthy family and his boarding school.  What problems could a teen named Jason Prosper have anyway?  Yet Dermont’s plot-driven story has great depth and deeper meaning as she transports readers back to the 1980s and provides us lots of teen angst along the way.  But The Starboard Sea is no John Hughes-type of tale; The Starboard Sea is intelligent, dark, and riveting.

In Jason Prosper’s world, appearances matter.  Why tell the truth when a lie sounds so much better?  It comes as no surprise that Jason has few role models in his life.  Jason, the scion of a wealthy New England family, watches the Iran-Contra hearings with his mother in the summer of 1987.  At seventeen, he has already learned that no one, not even the president, tells the truth.  Everyone has secrets; everyone tells lies—even his parents.  Jason’s mother dons different wigs in an attempt to disguise herself and catch her husband cheating.  She does not believe her husband is faithful.  It is important to point out that the country is on the brink of a stock market crash all because of overvaluing and devaluing the market.  Dermont writes in such a way that deception lurks on every page of this novel.  The reader must understand the deceit that abounds throughout the story before she can then appreciate Jason’s character.  Dermont’s Jason is a product of everything that happens around him.  Because of his elders who constantly drift to and fro with their inconsistencies, Jason is adrift; he is in danger of going under.

In addition to misleading authority figures, Jason’s world also includes “fake cousins” and John Singer Sargent portraits.  Jason and his family are so close with some friends that they have become a kind of quasi-family, even though they are not related.  In his family’s New York City apartment, a Sargent portrait of his great-great-grandmother hangs on the wall.  Not even the portrait is a true conceptualization of his ancestor: “Sargent was notorious for making rich people more attractive than they actually were, and my great-great-grandmother was no exception.”  Sargent airbrushed her into something she was most definitely not–a great beauty.

With all I have mentioned previously, it is quite understandable that this kid, whom his father calls “damaged goods,” carries a lot of baggage.  Most pressing to Jason, though, is the death of his best friend.  It was a suicide, and Jason was first to find the body.  After Cal’s death, Jason enters Bellingham Academy, “island of misfit toys” and place of second chances. 

Bellingham, in itself, is quite intriguing.  The boarding school is located in the town of Bellinghem, Massachusetts.  The founders of the academy think Bellingham simply looks “better on the letterhead.”  Dermont uses this to show yet another example of how Jason is surrounded only by facades.  Very little is real.  Dermont gives us a setting so real and so believable.  She takes her time drawing us into the world she has created.  She sets up the story well.

With all his baggage and heartache, Jason is a very tragic figure.  Cal’s death leaves him reeling.  The two had known each other since they were four and were on the sailing team together.  They won many trophies on the water.  Even at Bellingham, Jason cannot forget Cal.  “Even wet shoes” remind him of his deceased friend.  Jason tries out for the school’s sailing team, but a mishap occurs.  Jason saves the youth but decides to forego sailing without Cal.

At Bellingham, he feels lonely but soon meets someone to fill the void in his life.  He is drawn to a curious and beautiful girl at Bellingham named Aidan.   She owns shoes that she claims were owned by Fred Astaire.  Aidan is a murky figure.  Some things that she says seem less than truthful.  In my opinion, Aidan is Dermont’s most intriguing character.  Aidan’s father may or may not be Robert Mitchum.  Her mother, Aidan swears, is the inspiration for the Eagles’ song Hotel California.

Not surprisingly, Jason falls in love with Aidan.  Soon, all he thinks about are Cal and Aidan, Aidan and Cal.  Dermont, though, brings in a game-changer.  In a nod to the man versus nature conflict, Dermont orchestrates the landfall of a major hurricane on the town of Bellinghem.  The storm devastates both the town and the academy, leaving Jason to contend with yet another loss.

Since accidents and deaths follow Jason, he often thinks of Jessica McClure.  McClure was the toddler who, at eighteen months of age, fell into a well in the backyard of her Midland, Texas, home on October 14, 1987.  After 58 hours, she was saved.  Baby Jessica was saved.  Dermont adds this element to the story to underscore how lost Jason feels.  Jason cannot help but wonder who will save him.  He feels he is drowning but sees no life raft.  Where is his rescue crew to pull him from his abyss?

Because Jason loves the water, Dermont uses ocean motifs throughout her tale.  She is especially fond of sailing metaphors.  This, surprisingly, never grows tiresome and strengthens the narrative.  Her passages are visually stunning.  I want to share some of my favorites.  When Jason sees Bellingham for the first time: “The entire school appeared to float on water, like a life raft.  I felt weightless.  The rhythm of the waves reminded me of naval hymns, of songs about peril and rescue.”  To describe himself after Cal’s death, Jason reveals, “Since Cal’s death, I’d developed a nasty habit of capsizing.”  To describe the hurricane’s devastation, Dermont writes: “Poseidon had struck his trident, summoning his flood, turning Bellingham into a temporary Atlantis.”

Even the novel’s title is a nod to Dermont’s sailing metaphors.  The “starboard sea” means “the right sea, the true sea, or like finding the best path in life.”  In writing this novel, Dermont has truly discovered her own starboard sea.  I hope she does not stray from this, her right path, her own starboard sea.

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