The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams (2018)

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2018 William Morrow cover (image: goodreads.com)

I think I was initially drawn to this book because of the William Morrow hardback cover on GoodReads – it makes The Summer Wives look like a glamorous and mysterious society tale, which, in a way, it is. But I have to say that when I actually got round to reading it, The Summer Wives was not quite what I expected.

Expectations can often be damaging to our opinion or experience of reading a book, especially when they might be a bit misinformed. I put The Summer Wives on my wish list for Christmas and birthday books and it sat there for some time, before I received a copy for my birthday. By that point the HarperCollins paperback had come out, with a wildly different cover, and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen once I started reading.

The novel delivered the twisting family saga that I was after, buoyed up by the charming and well-developed character of Miranda Schuyler at its centre. Her family owns a summer house on Winthrop Island, off the coast of New England, which we visit with Miranda over the course of several decades. We quickly learn that there is a distinct divide between the people that own summer houses there and those that live on the island all year round, who are mostly Portuguese. The latter are the working class of the island, and the class and race divisions are laid on pretty thick. The summer visitors are filled with all the cliches of rich people on holiday, playing golf, eating at ‘the club’, gossiping, and drinking too much; while the Portuguese residents are hardworking ‘simple’ folk who don’t get too much examination or development.

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2018 HarperCollins cover (image: goodreads.com)

Miranda is thrown into this world when her mother marries Hugh Fisher, one of the wealthiest people on the island, and she is portrayed as something of an outsider, not entirely comfortable with this life of luxury and privilege. She develops a crush on Joseph Vargas, the son of a fisherman and his wife who live in the island’s lighthouse. Joseph has a complex friendship with Hugh’s daughter Isobel, and she initially thinks that they might be having an affair, or that Isobel is in love with Joseph. Her curiosity about this means that she slowly uncovers a huge family secret, and everything goes completely wrong from there. After one catastrophic night, Miranda leaves the island and does not return for eighteen years. This section of the story is dramatic and intense, and sometimes veers into melodrama as everything is just suggested and hinted at, and there are lots of meaningful looks between characters, with Miranda on the sidelines trying to work out what it all means. At times it got a bit soapy and cliched, overdoing it with the trope of seemingly perfect lives covering up a wealth of secrets and unhappiness.

The story picks up again on her return to the island, on the run from an unhappy marriage and wavering film career. Not much seems to have changed except for Miranda’s generation now being the adults, and, now that Hugh Fisher is dead, her mother has taken in a colourful cast of lodgers at their house. Isobel is still there, drinking and being dramatic. Miranda sets out on a quest to find Joseph and tie up a litany of loose ends from the past, upsetting the balance of peace on the island. I enjoyed this section a bit more as it was a little more original and less cliched, and it was interesting to see the effects of time on the various characters and their situations. Miranda and Isobel in particular became more interesting, and throughout we learn a bit about the intervening years and Miranda’s adventures in Europe with Isobel’s mother. Miranda and Isobel’s relationship as stepsisters is well drawn, filled with a mix of affection, resentment, jealousy, and camaraderie. When they were younger Isobel always had the upper hand, but now Miranda is the more worldly, brave enough to forge a life away from the society of the island. Their dynamic is interesting and engaging, and well used to create depth and intrigue for the reader.

The two timelines are broken up into sections that you read one after the other, jumping from Miranda’s teenage years in the early 1950s, to her return to the island in 1969. This structure mostly works well, slowly revealing more and more information – or teasing possible reveals – until it all comes together in the dramatic conclusion. There is also a smaller storyline from many years before Miranda comes to the island, when Hugh Fisher was young, the significance of which slowly becomes apparent. As I said the structure does work well, but at times it felt like the novel as a whole relied too heavily on secrets being kept and then revealed, rather than on character development and the central relationships. For me this is what made it sometimes melodramatic and soapy, where it could have been more subtle and nuanced. Crucially I think the writing suffered at times for being too caught up with dramatic plot, whereas it was much smoother and enjoyable in the ‘quieter’ moments of the book and in Miranda’s musings on the island and her life.

I think in some ways you could class The Summer Wives as a ‘holiday read’, as it’s engaging and well-paced, full of excitement and mystery. For me it went a little too far in this direction, and so I ultimately found it a bit uninspiring and disappointing – perhaps I was expecting too much, or something else entirely. Like a summer holiday it was fun while it lasted, but not something I’d want all the time.

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Published in 2018 by William Morrow and HarperCollins.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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