02 September 2013

Summer's not over yet: Five "up at the cabin" books

This summer I found myself gravitating toward books about "summer places" -- second homes by the water, where the whole family can get together, maybe just one more time or maybe every year. I can't account for it except to speculate that my family's summers were never like that, so with the curiosity of the anthropologist I peered through those windows with extra curiosity. Whether you spent some time at your own summer place (or borrowed a friend's) this summer, or spent your vacation with central air, "Orange Is The New Black" or passport stamps instead, I recommend all five of these books for a getaway fix.

First, mood music:

Comedy: Jennifer Close, THE SMART ONE. I found Close's debut GIRLS IN WHITE DRESSES to be more captivating in concept than execution, but this take on twentysomethings in crisis struck the sweet spot between earnestness and sarcasm. The book begins and ends as the Coffey family and their three adult children visit the southern New Jersey cabin where they go every summer, the parents not knowing that middle child Claire is scheming to move back in, oldest Martha has no intention of leaving and youngest Max will end up seeing it as his only option. The problems faced by these three are as familiar to me as their internal logic to solve them is absurd. Read it, then (if you no longer live at home) send it to your parents with a blank thank-you note.

Tragedy: Ayelet Waldman, RED HOOK ROAD. A small coastal Maine town was the only place where the Tetherleys and Copakens could imagine son John and daughter Becca getting married, where the young couple expected to renovate a boat and sail around the world together. When the couple is killed on the way to their own wedding reception, the lighthearted party becomes a wake.  Waldman jumps from summer to summer in a surprisingly fluid way, eliding the winters to show the ways both families adapt around the loss, unthinkable as it still is. Much of the tension here lies in the conflicting attitudes of the Tetherleys, working-class year-rounders, and the Copakens, whose cultured roots are in New York and abroad but still consider themselves "native" Red Hook inhabitants -- a rift that complicates their healing after the accident.

Horror: A.M. Homes, THE END OF ALICE. I read a streak of Homes' novels this summer preparing for a column I wrote, and in some ways this is an outlier from her more typical suburban white-collar territory (Cheeverville, if I may?) Written as a series of letters between a convicted murderer and a 19-year-old fan, the murderer is convinced to offer up the story of the crime that put him there -- one with its roots in a summer cabin in Pennsylvania, where he moved to try and get away from his pedophilic impulses. Its summer scenes may not be the most memorable in this extremely disturbing, hard to put down book, but the fantasy of getting away from your worst self still attaches.
 Nostalgia: Stewart O'Nan, WISH YOU WERE HERE. Each time I read an O'Nan book I appreciate the author more, and this one is his most expansive yet: After her husband's death, Emily Maxwell decided to sell their summer cabin in upstate New York, but not without inviting her children and grandchildren to spend just one more week on Lake Chautauqua. As with THE SMART ONE, all the visitors bring their own secret problems, but struggle to do just what they always used to do up at the cabin, no matter how unnatural it feels. The multitude of perspectives from which the story is told creates meaningful doubt around how well the house has served its regular visitors, and how they relate to each other. Not every loose end is tucked in, and some questions remain unanswered -- just like with real families.

Subversion: Maggie Shipstead, SEATING ARRANGEMENTS. If you're knocking through this list, in whatever fashion, I suggest you get to this one last because it takes the idyllic cabin dream and neatly turns it on its head. The whole book is set over a weekend in Cape Cod at a picture-perfect wedding... or is it? Like O'Nan, Shipstead uses multiple characters' perspective to play them off against each other, often directly contradicting information another character gave as truth. But there's also a ton of plot packed into this premise; I laughed, I gasped, I told a ton of people to read it (and now I'm telling you).

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