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Posts Tagged ‘beach book’

ana2This time last week I was catching up with childhood pal Scout Finch. This week, it’s Anne Shirley, star of L.M. Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables and its sequels. Only this Anne is 15 year-old Ana Cortez, an East L.A. orphan desperate to avoid being sent to yet another group home. Then her social worker offers her the chance to work on a farm run by a brother and sister.

Hmm. The similarities — and differences — between Montgomery’s book and Andi Teran’s first novel Ana of California (Penguin Books, digital galley) are both obvious and intentional. Teran takes Anne of Green Gables as her inspiration and runs with it, updating the familiar story and characters but also veering in different directions when it suits her. I’m not generally in favor of authors piggybacking on favorite tales and characters, unless they can offer an original take, as with Laurie R. King’s  Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series or Helen Fieldings’ Bridget Jones books. Teran’s Ana may be as talkative and imaginative as Anne, and she has that same ache to belong, but she also emerges as a unique heroine in her own right, a talented artist burdened by a traumatic childhood.

Plunked down on the Garber farm in the tiny town of Hadley in northern California, city girl Ana doesn’t know the differences between blackberry bushes and vegetable plants, herbs and weeds. But she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and she works hard, determined to prove herself to gruff Emmett Garber. His sister Abbie is more sympathetic but also demanding, and Ana’s quick tongue gets her into misunderstandings with some of the farm’s neighbors and customers. She does makes a friend of fellow outsider Rye Moon and also attracts the attention of a rich kid on a neighboring farm. Still, unaware of family secrets, she inadvertently stirs up trouble that could send her back to L.A.

References to drugs, gangs and pop culture keep the story contemporary, but vulnerable Ana’s struggle to find her place in the world is timeless. Ana Cortez and Anne Shirley are kindred spirits, and Ana of California is a pleasing coming-of-age YA crossover.

augustIt’s been ages since I read Elizabeth Antrim’s 1922 novel The Enchanted April and saw the 1991 gem of a movie, but I have fond memories of both. Antrim’s comedy of manners about four Londoners who share a chateau in Italy is witty and wise, and the Mike Newell film glows in a sun-drenched paradise. There’s also a warm glow to Brenda Bowen’s update, Enchanted August: A Novel (Penguin Publishing, digital galley), where a huge “cottage” on a small Maine island subs as the transformative getaway for four disaffected New Yorkers.

Bowen keeps the same characters and names for the most part, although elderly widow Mrs. Fisher has become elderly Beverly Fisher, a gay man mourning the loss of of his longtime partner, a famous songwriter, and his beloved cat Possum. But he’s just as outwardly surly and selfish as the original character — he keeps the only coffeepot for himself in the desirable turret room — and the pleasure at watching him thaw is the same. Lottie and Rose also charm as the aggrieved wives and mothers who blossom in the sun and salt air, and young indie actress Caroline also falls under the spell of Little Lost Island. Lottie unwinds enough to invite her uptight attorney husband and toddler son to visit, and Caroline is text-flirting with a best-selling author who longs to meet her in person. He writes under a pseudonym so Caroline has no idea he is actually Rose’s philandering husband. Even as Rose is contemplating asking him to join her on the island, the house’s tweedy owner arrives in hopes of wooing Rose. So, yes, it’s a Maine midsummer night’s dream, but it’s also a smoothly written beach book. I couldn’t stop smiling.

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You never know. On the surface, Holly LeCraw’s debut novel, The Swimming Pool, appears to have all the elements of a good beach book, an intriguing summer tale. “A heartbreaking affair, an unsolved murder, an explosive romance,” touts the publisher. “Welcome to summer on the Cape.”

Actually, two summers, seven years apart. LeCraw glides easily between the two, as well as other sequences in the past, as the lives of two families, the Atkinsons and the McClatcheys, overlap way too much. 

Seven years ago, Marcella Atkinson had a clandestine affair with summer neighbor Cecil McClatchey. But then Cecil’s wife Betsy was killed during an apparent break-in in their Atlanta home, and Cecil, implicated but never arrested, died in a single-car accident. Meanwhile in Connecticut, Marcella and her uptight husband Anthony divorced, and sent their young daughter Toni to boarding school.

In the present, Cecil and Betsy’s adult daughter Callie, returns to the Cape with her toddler son, baby daughter and a terrible case of post-partum depression. Because her husband can only visit on the weekends, Callie’s attorney brother Jed takes some time off to spend with Callie and the kids. And, oh, yes, 18-year-old Toni Atkinson, overflowing her bikini,  is working as their babysitter. Wait — it gets better. Jed finds an old bathing suit of Marcella’s in the closet of the McClatchey summer house and realizes she had a thing with his father. He confronts her in her small cottage a couple hours away, she tells him a few things, and then they fall in lust, possibly love. 

This can only end in tears, but LeCraw wades right in, plumbing the murky emotional depths of the various characters, all of whom are weighted with guilt and still more secrets. Everyone is so serious, repressed and/or depressed that the story slowly sinks, all tension dissolving. 

LeCraw writes well about the dynamics of the relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, so that one almost forgives the contrivances. In one lovely set piece, Callie remembers sitting on the side of the pool with her mother, their legs outstretched and so alike. At another point, Cecil thinks of marriage as an elaborate, old-fashioned train journey with loads of luggage and creature comforts. “But an affair, he now knew, was a hasty, lean escape. You took only the clothes on your back, you were practically weightless, sleek and swift…” 

But LeCraw’s characters are anchored to the past, burdened by the present.  No playing in the pool here. No day at the beach, alas.  Just a long, slow synchronized swim in an ocean of angst.

Open Book: The Swimming Pool  by Holly LeCraw is published by Doubleday, which sent me an advance copy.

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