With about a month and a half of summer time left here on the East Coast, it’s not too late to crack open your next beach read. Grab a fruity drink, slather on the SPF, and check out A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams. Set in the 1930’s in the fictional town of Seaview, Rhode Island, this love triangle is anything but old-fashioned.
I had the sincere privilege of meeting Beatriz Williams at an author event at my favorite bookstore, R.J. Julia in Madison, CT, where I picked up the book. The best way to describe Williams is energetic and delightful. Her presentation was part writer’s workshop, part history lesson, and part book teaser. She began by explaining that the year and location of the story was greatly influenced by The Great Hurricane of 1938. Having lived in New England for the past seven years and having grown up in New York I was surprised that I had never learned about this hurricane. It devastated the New England coastline and claimed the lives of over 700 people on a mild afternoon turned hell on earth. Williams explained that the lack of advanced weather tracking radar at the time had led weather casters to believe that the hurricane would go out to sea. Little did they know it would take direct aim at the New England Coastline. People had little to no advanced warning of the storm’s approach, and as Williams showed us in her presentation, the storm packed a punch that literally wiped entire towns off the map (you can see before and after photos here.)
Seaview, Rhode Island, the setting for A Hundred Summers, is largely based on the real life town of Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Williams explained that her inspiration for the story began with her interest in the idea of how New Englanders “summer” and how little enclaves of families traditionally relocate for the summer months from their homes in New York City, Boston, and inland to the same beach homes with the same families for generations. Think old money. Think mother playing bridge at the club while the kids search for shells and take tennis lessons, while father comes to visit on the weekend to let the stench of city grime be whisked away by the brisk salty summer air.
Obviously this information drew my attention immediately because before you even read the book you now know that it takes place during a summer that culminates with this destructive hurricane. At this point, I don’t even know the plot but I’m worried about these fictional characters and what is going to happen to them while they’re hanging out on the beach as the storm approaches. I want to warn them, but it’s 2013 and they do not exist. (In the literary world this is what is known as, “I need to get out of the house a little more”….but I digress).
The story starts simply with two friends, Lilly and Budgie, during their college years in 1931. The two girls sit in the bleachers at a Dartmouth football game, Budgie with her eye on the star football player Graham Pendleton, while Lilly’s eyes lay claim to Nick Greenwald. Both Lilly and Budgie are native New Yorkers with blue blood running in their veins. While Budgie is outgoing and a little more sexually adventurous, Lilly is pretty, reserved, and poised to follow the rules of her upper class upbringing. Lilly’s life changes when Budgie invites Nick and Graham out to dinner. Budgie and Graham embark in a little back seat rendezvous while Lilly and Nick immediately connect and begin an intense love affair. Lilly and Nick’ s love is beyond the superficial college hook up. It is a jumping-on-Oprah’s-couch, let’s elope and be together forever kind of love. The problem is, Nick is Jewish and in Lilly’s circle this is forbidden. Once college ends, Nick and Lilly refuse to go their separate ways and when old social standards come back into play at home in New York, Lilly and Nick are put to the test.
Skip ahead to 1938 and Lilly finds herself single with her mother, aunt, and little sister Kiki at their family summer home in Seaview. Lilly is the type of woman who does what is expected of her so she dutifully goes to look after her sister, even though Seaview is a little tired for a single woman in her late 20’s. This summer turns out to be a bit different because an old friend is about to return to town. Budgie, and her new husband Nick Greenwald, are returning to her old summer home after leaving it empty for many years. Years earlier Nick and Lilly’s love affair came to a crashing and heartbreaking end, and of course Budgie had no qualms about taking Lilly’s place right beside Nick. What could have been a summer of simple awkward encounters between the newly married couple and spiteful ex-best friend/ex-girlfriend turns into a life changing and heart-wrenching summer where the secrets from the past catch up with the characters in the present (even Graham Pendleton makes an appearance!)
Williams keeps the story moving along quickly and I was never bored. Unlike some other stories which fail to keep the plot moving when alternating between two stories in two different time periods, Williams writes with such great precision that I never felt like I was getting confused or that the plot was stalling. The way she reveals secrets and details little by little will keep you guessing because nothing is as it seems. The character’s lives change quickly and history is re-written especially in the last 100 pages. No spoilers here, but there is a moment toward the end where you will gasp, sit straight up in your seat and say OH EM GEEE (OMG)!
The characters and landscapes are written in such a way that you feel the sand between your toes as you sit on the beach with them. Budgie is the ultimate frenemy (a friend who is also an enemy…ladies, you know what I’m talking about), who has a wit as sharp as a tack, the looks like a pin-up girl, and the scheming mind of a James Bond villain. You won’t be able to help but feel the fire between Lilly and Nick during their most intimate moments. The fact that Williams makes it known that the plot culminates with a furious hurricane is brilliant, as it brings this very emotionally charged story to its peak. Readers who are familiar with New York City and New England will enjoy picking up on the little bits of familiar geography as the characters roam up and down the I-95 corridor.
A Hundred Summers is a very entertaining read that takes the old love triangle tale and gives it a fresh perspective. The historical context is extremely well researched and presented, not just with the hurricane but also with the vastly changing feminist ideals of the time period. I always love a book where I can have a connection with the characters that results in me wanting to root for them. A Hundred Summers delivered just that. I cannot wait for Beatriz Williams’ next book, and with any luck she will return to R.J. Julia when it is released.
5 out of 5 Stars
A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams
Penguin Group (2013)
Hardcover: 368 pages