Sometimes it pays to let yourself be manipulated. My first instinct upon seeing Hilma Wolitzer's new novel was to pooh-pooh it as a bald appeal to book clubs across the land.
Summer Reading by Hilma Wolitzer, hardcover, 272 pages
I mean, come on: Here we have a novel, set in the glossy beach towns of the Hamptons, about rich women who gather to gossip and drowsily comment on classics like Madame Bovary that they've maybe half-read.
Even more shameful, Wolitzer's novel is brazenly entitled Summer Reading. And you want to know the most outrageous thing about this novel? It works. It's droll and inventive and smart — in a rollicking way — about the way books can both enlarge and warp the world views of susceptible readers.
I was especially vulnerable to the fantasy Wolitzer spins out about her main character: Angela Graves is a retired English professor who lives in a book-lined cottage by the sea. The only irksome facet of her life is her seasonal job leading discussions at local book groups. One of those groups, hosted by a blonde billionairess named Lissy Snyder, calls itself The Page Turners. Its members pay a lot of attention to style and less to substance: For its ostensible discussion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, for instance, The Page Turners has its meeting catered by Fiesta on Wheels, complete with piñatas stuffed with bookmarks. (Browse an excerpt.)
Summer Reading darkens in tone as Wolitzer sweeps us back into Angela's past, to the love affair responsible for her present seclusion. Wolitzer also cleverly investigates reading's fallout on three women from different classes: Lissy, the socialite; her housekeeper, who picks up a discarded paperback of Evan S. Connell's novel Mrs. Bridge; and of course Angela herself. Like Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club, a fun novel with a similar premise from a few years ago, Wolitzer's Summer Reading wittily plays off the plots and styles of the great books under discussion, culminating in shimmering summer fairy-tale endings for all the characters we readers have come to root for.
Recklessness, Temptation and Regret
Be Near Me by Andrew O'Hagan, hardcover, 320 pages
No fairy tales afoot, I'm afraid, in Andrew O'Hagan's meditative novel Be Near Me. Set in a small, mean town in Scotland by the Irish Sea, Be Near Me tells the story of a 50ish Catholic priest named David Anderton, who finds himself drawn to the company of two outlaw teenagers. Father David is something of a lonely aesthete — he cultivates his garden and his fine tastes in music and food — but the teenagers, who dabble in drugs and shoplifting, reawaken his memories of a more reckless life, back when he was an Oxford student in the 1960s.
O'Hagan is a lovely, precise writer with unexpected ways of describing the miraculous as well as the mundane. (Read the first chapter.) For instance, here's Father David's grim estimation of the atmosphere at the local Catholic school:
One got the impression the staff believed very strongly that education was a matter of bitter entrenchment as opposed to any sort of managed revelation, and they seemed in cahoots with the children when it came to the sorry victory of rights over responsibilities. Stupid children are always aware of their rights, and so are stupid teachers ....
Father David is far from stupid, but as it turns out he lacks the smarts to fend off temptations fueled by his own aggrieved sense of regret.
A Rueful Shoulder-Shrug of a Novel
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, hardcover, 208 pages
Speaking of being less than bright, last year I was so carried away by Ian McEwan's novel Saturday that I began enthusing about it — to a crowd at a bookstore, no less — when I was just two-thirds of the way through it. Then I finished it, and saw to my horror that Saturday took a nosedive from the sublime to the ridiculous.
So this is a pronouncement based on my complete reading of McEwan's latest novel, On Chesil Beach: It's superb. Everything that readers have come to expect of McEwan — a restrained hand with plot revelations, an elegant way with words, that signature narrative tone of the rueful shoulder-shrug — it's all here in this slim novel. (Read an excerpt.)
The setting is a seaside hotel in England in 1962. Two newlyweds, both virgins, find themselves fearing the night to come. The groom, Edward, worries about his sexual performance; his bride, Florence, is repulsed by the very thought of intercourse. In preparation for the married life, she's been reading a modern sex handbook, studded with phrases that make her gag: mucous membrane, glans, penetration. "Was she obliged ... ," Florence thought, "to transform herself for Edward into a kind of portal or drawing room through which he might process?"
Edward is a budding historian, in thrall to "the great man theory of history," but as McEwan ironically and painfully details, Edward and Florence can't themselves transcend the neuroses of their personal histories, nor the constraints of their times. Intense and emotionally wise, On Chesil Beach is a masterwork of short fiction that might make even frivolous readers like those Page Turners put down their glasses of white wine and show some reverence.