last update: July 11, 2019, 11 a.m.
Last summer, I made it to the beach only once — to Asbury Park, N.J., for a day trip with my son.
Nevertheless, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, I plowed through a dozen novels, many of which could be described as “beach books.” Now, before I take these words out of quotation marks, and before we explore this season’s nominees, I want to provide a modern definition of the term.
A beach read does not have to be consumed on the sand. It is equally at home by a lake or a pool, on a porch or in bed. It keeps you company on a sweaty commute when you feel as if you’re the only person in the world who isn’t on vacation somewhere fabulous. Beach books pair well with Popsicles, watermelon, peaches and lemonade, but they’re not restricted to the months when these delicacies are in season. Their defining criterion is juiciness, which plays well at any time of year. I’ve been known to enjoy one during a blizzard in February, when the ocean seems as far away as the stars. This is perfectly acceptable, at least according to my literary laws.
Finally, there is a common misconception that a beach book is “easy” or “mindless.” It can be mindless depending on which one you pick, but I don’t like when people use “beach book” as a derogatory term. The titles on my list are thought-provoking and propulsive, possessing both brains and brawn. They’re close relatives of book club books, but without the element of homework. I read a beach book for my own enjoyment and not because I’m not going to have to opine about it in someone’s unnaturally clean kitchen over a hand-thrown bowl of baba ghanouj.
These books are the cool aunts of the literary world: They drive with the top down and take you to new places. They’re memorable, challenging, warm and wise. They should not be underestimated. They will steal your day — and, yes, your heart.
I am a student of Jennifer Weiner’s novels. I’ve read them all, and MRS. EVERYTHING (Atria, 464 pp., $28) is my favorite, hands down. It put me into the kind of antisocial trance my teenagers hope for — the one where I say yes to everything just so they’ll leave me alone.
“Mrs. Everything” tells the story of two sisters, Jo and Bethie Kaufman, who grow up in Detroit in the 1950s and find their way to Ann Arbor in its hippie heyday, then to stifling suburban Connecticut and finally to a feminist collective in Atlanta. Balancing her signature sense of humor with a new (to her novels) political voice, Weiner tells the story of the women’s rights movement and the sexual awakening of a woman coming of age at a time when being attracted to women would keep her at the fringes of the world she was raised to join. She opts for the safe route, making unimaginable sacrifices along the way, especially on behalf of her sister, who finds the freedom to live the life they both wanted.
The most poignant and timely scene involves a woman and a man in a hotel room. Before they part ways, after the woman has handed over an envelope of cash, the man (who may or may not be a doctor) says, “You were never here.” I almost ripped out the page and sent it to Gov. Kay Ivey in Alabama.
Weiner has always been a gifted novelist and a powerful essayist. In “Mrs. Everything,” she brings the best of both worlds to the page, holding up the prism of choice and letting the light shine through from every angle. If you’re lucky enough to read it on the beach, try to do so elbow to elbow with your mom. If you have time for only one book this summer, pick this one.
Elin Hilderbrand is the grande dame of beach reads, generating at least one — and sometimes two — love letters to Nantucket every year. SUMMER OF ’69 (Little, Brown, 418 pp., $28) splits time with Martha’s Vineyard and also wades gracefully into a time of political upheaval not unlike the one we’re in now.
Kate Levin brings her brood from Boston to her tyrannical mother’s beach house every June. This summer — you guessed it, the summer of 1969 — she’s short on reinforcements: Her husband, David, has to work and can take his mother-in-law only in small doses (when you get to know Exalta, you’ll understand why); her son, Tiger, has just been deployed to Vietnam; her oldest, Blair, is too pregnant to travel; and her wild child middle daughter, Kirby, has decamped to a rival island to work at a hotel frequented by the likes of Ted Kennedy. (There is a Forrest Gump quality to Hilderbrand’s story, but not in an annoying way.)
The only Levin left to absorb the heat of mother Kate’s worry and grandmother Exalta’s judgment is 13-year-old Jessie, the crown jewel of the Levin crew. Picture Harriet the Spy with a preppy seashore twist, navigating her first crush and the shoals of her fractured family. Usually I read to escape adolescents, but I loved Jessie so much I keep hoping she’ll show up in the third row of my car.
Hilderbrand shifts among characters with her usual ease, weaving a saga that will make you forget the dynamics of your own dysfunctional people as you crowd into a too-small vacation rental. You definitely wouldn’t want to share an outdoor shower with the Levins, but you also won’t want to put down this book until you find out how they survive this stressful season. The answer may be the same as it is with most families — they stick together — but the road to get there is riddled with potholes that are fun to navigate as long as they’re fiction.
Welcome to old money, new heartbreak, big secrets and the kind of mouthwatering picnics nobody packs in real life (boiled eggs, tin of sandwiches, bottles of gin). But the North Star of Sarah Blake’s THE GUEST BOOK (Flatiron, 484 pp., $27.99) isn’t the Milton family — although they are fascinating, even the ghosts — it’s the Maine island cottage where they spend their summers. For me, it was love at first sight: “The house on the hill, the spruce line behind it, these wide verdant fields whose grasses waved like girls at a fair.” Even before the first page of the first chapter, you know this place is going to let you down — and yet, you climb the hill to the front door. Happily.
“The Guest Book” tells the story of the people who come to Crockett’s Island, summer after summer. Some are married in, some are born in, some are grandfathered in by virtue of their own ambition. Blake moves back and forth between the patriarch and matriarch, Ogden and Kitty Milton — driven by a tragedy I did not see coming, which almost ruined the book for me — and their granddaughter, Evie, who struggles to decide the fate of the compound and, in piecing together its history, uncovers an ugly foundation she never knew existed. She can’t look away, and neither will you.
A few summers ago, I read J. Ryan Stradal’s first novel, “Kitchens of the Great Midwest,” on a flight from Nashville to Newark. I buckled my seatbelt, opened the book and when I looked up again, the flight attendant was asking if I needed assistance getting off the plane. I didn’t, but now you know the spell this author can cast. He does it again with THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA (Pamela Dorman, 349 pp., $26), which I sucked down on a seven-hour drive from New Jersey to Ohio.
Like “Mrs. Everything,” this novel encompasses an astonishing swath of time while feeling like an intimate account of the journey of a single family. In this case, they don’t travel far. Stradal’s story begins in Minnesota in 1959, when 15-year-old Helen Calder takes her first sip of beer. She becomes obsessed: with drinking beer, brewing beer, making sure the beer she makes is on tap at every tavern and roadhouse within a day’s drive. Helen even bets the family farm on beer, cheating her sister, Edith, out of an inheritance and setting her on a decades-long path of penny-pinching and odd jobs, including one as a celebrated pie-baker at a nursing home. The sisters become estranged, their lives as different as can be, until Edith’s granddaughter develops her own unwavering fixation on beer and opens a brewery to rival Helen’s.
Serendipity may not bubble up in real life as often as it does in Stradal’s world, but who cares? Other readers can nitpick all they want about what’s realistic and what’s not. I willingly suspended disbelief, shotgunning the whole optimistic, meticulously researched story in one satisfying gulp. And when I arrived at my destination, you better believe I had a cold beer. Or two.
I’m a sucker for stories where strangers circulate in the same orbit, getting closer and closer until they eventually change each other’s lives, or at least fall in love. Maeve Binchy was a master of this form, and now Meg Mitchell Moore fills her big shoes with THE ISLANDERS (Morrow/HarperCollins, 417 pp., $26.99), her fifth novel, in which several lonely people converge on Block Island. They are Joy Sousa, a single mom whose whoopie pie empire is about to be challenged by an arriviste food truck; the former literary “it” boy Anthony Puckett, who is squatting in a friend’s digs after a plagiarism scandal; and my personal favorite, Lu Trusdale — mother of two young boys, wife of a surgeon, daughter-in-law of a meddler and author of a wildly popular food blog. The twist: She writes in the voice of a doting dad, and nobody in her real family has any idea what she’s up to.
All of Moore’s characters have something they want to hide and something they want very badly (romance, independence, a break from their past). Block Island turns out to be the perfect place for such pursuits. In fact, it becomes a presence unto itself, which is a tribute to Moore’s evocative descriptions of the downtown and the beach. There were points where I thought she could press deeper into a particular plotline — in Joy’s case, I sometimes had the sense of being on a group bus tour instead of a private walking tour — but her story has such nice momentum, it didn’t really matter. If you’re feeling landlocked and water-deprived, “The Islanders” is the ticket to the getaway you need.
We’ve already dipped our toes in the water on Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Maine and Block Island. Now let’s sail over to mainland Cape Cod, where Karen Dukess plants a bright flag on the dunes with her debut, THE LAST BOOK PARTY (Holt, 238 pp., $27). Some might call this a historical novel; I am not one of them. It takes place in 1987 — the heyday of three-martini lunches and bon vivant authors — when 25-year-old Eve Rosen leaves a dead-end job at a New York City publishing company to be a research assistant for Henry Grey, a silver-tongued New Yorker writer who is slightly past his prime. Luckily for Eve, Grey and his poet wife, Tillie, operate from a charming Truro bungalow that is a magnet for artists, intellectuals and their handsome son.
I thought I had this one figured out after the first chapter, but I was wrong. After some initial wobbly pacing, Dukess delivers a spare, bittersweet page-turner that culminates in the Greys’ much-anticipated end-of-summer party, at which everyone comes dressed as a favorite literary character. Here we see the characters as they would like to be seen, or as they see themselves — which is, in some cases, in direct opposition to who we know them to be. I’m navigating some big surprises here, but suffice it to say that aspiration is the moon controlling the tides of this book, and Dukess’s unmistakable love of words, stories and “book people” is what keeps you bobbing briskly along with the waves.
Please don’t be deterred by the list of 33 characters printed at the front of Regina Porter’s THE TRAVELERS (Hogarth, 303 pp., $27). I know what you’re thinking: Too much to keep track of! Or: Too complicated when I’m reading on a screen. I feel you, but I’m happy to report I never had to check the cheat sheet, not once. On the rare occasions when Porter’s people started to blend together, I absorbed their stories as you would a pointillist painting — from a distance, where the big picture was always clear.
“The Travelers” is the story of two families — white and black, scattered across the North and the South, coming together and then apart across decades, wars, presidential administrations and tragedies large and small. Each chapter reads like a short story: the one where a grandfather looks away from his granddaughter in a swimming pool; the one where a seaman’s apprentice on an aircraft carrier exacts revenge on an abusive officer; the one where a white boy tries to befriend a new black neighbor without inviting him over (his parents are busy, but not too busy to be racist).
You have to let this book wash over you. If you’re looking for a traditional story with a beginning, middle and end, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a poetic, spare, sometimes funny tale of ordinary people pining for meaningful connections — or if you’re someone who wishes Raymond Carver had published a novel — you have arrived.
Jean Kwok burst onto the literary scene nine years ago with her debut, “Girl in Translation,” about a Chinese-American schoolgirl who moonlights as a sweatshop worker. Her second novel, “Mambo in Chinatown,” explored similar themes of straddling cultures and living a double life. Now, in SEARCHING FOR SYLVIE LEE (Morrow/HarperCollins, 314 pp., $26.99), Kwok layers a mystery on top of a compelling story about another Chinese family trying to find their footing in an unfamiliar world.
The story begins when Amy Lee (the most American member of her family) discovers that her older sister is missing. Sylvie is the golden child — Princeton undergrad, Harvard M.B.A. — but her past is complicated. When the Lees moved from China to the Beautiful Country, as they call it, they quickly realized they weren’t equipped to care for their infant daughter and sent her to the Netherlands to live with her grandmother and a distant cousin. Sylvie spends nine years with this complicated family and, for reasons we come to understand thanks to Amy’s detective work, never fully rejoins her family in Queens.
Kwok’s story spans generations, continents and language barriers, combining old-fashioned Nancy Drew sleuthing with the warmth and heart we’ve come to expect from this gifted writer. My one quibble: Some of Kwok’s dialogue veers from the conversational into the informational, so characters say things they already know about one another, as if for the benefit of the reader. I wanted to say, “Don’t mind me, I’ll figure it out!” but eventually I lost myself in the music of Kwok’s story and heard a family trying to find their own harmony. If there’s a more familiar and beautiful sound, I don’t know what it is.