The Last Word : An Island homecoming
"The Beach House," by Jane Green. Viking, 2008. 352 pages. $24.95.
It's a fair statement to say that lots of writers exploit the Vineyard for its setting - sometimes with laughable results. The "magical" place and the fantasy life co-mingle with grievous topographical errors, so I was interested to see what a writer might do to Nantucket.
If I were to guess, I'd say that Jane Green, author of "The Beach House," must spend at least some time there in the summer. She uses the term on-island correctly. She gets the problem of tear-downs and overbuilding. She also keeps her action on our sister isle to the summer season, which may suggest that she has no familiarity with the off-season, but then this is, after all, a beach read.
Nan Powell is the 60-ish widow whose husband long ago chose suicide over his massive gambling debts. She is a treat. She's mildly eccentric in that she says what she likes, smokes like a chimney, dresses like a gypsy, and swims naked in absent summer people's pools before picking their flowers. (And all you summer residents who think this sort of thing doesn't happen, well, think again.)
Nan should be center stage, but a lot of the action takes place in and around Manhattan, setting up the story. When we do finally arrive at her ramshackle family manse, it's worth the wait. Ms. Green's writing manifests the sensibility of the old way of life long since overshadowed by the current obsession with overt wealth and the one-upmanship of home ownership among a certain milieu of people.
Nan's house is her in-law's one-time summer home, now her permanent home, and it hasn't changed a bit in the intervening 40 years. We all want to believe that these traditional summer houses are going to be around forever, but, as Nan learns, their value is not in their history or in family sentiment, but in their buildable lots.
At heart, this is a family story. Three disparate couples and their problems are at the center of the plot to bring most of them together in Nan Powell's Nantucket home. The ones left behind are, well, left behind, and we needn't worry about them.
Eventually, half of the couples around whom this story is built find themselves on Nantucket at Nan's house, which she has lately decided should be a B&B in order to earn the money to keep the old pile standing.
One of the visitors is her son, Michael, who is struggling to extricate himself from an ill-considered affair. The second is Daniel, a man lately come out of the closet, whose wife is in a cottage nearby, reeling from the fact that her marriage was always a sham. The third party is Daff, who is herself trying to pull her life together after her husband's marital betrayal.
The single unifying theme in this story is the belief that for everyone there is The One: the perfect mate, the perfect and meaningful, cozy, Screen-Gems lifestyle, unconflicted and never laden with secrets. The objective in everyone's view is to "come home."
The novel is a very nice spin on the homecoming story. I admit I've always been a sucker for strangers-become-family stories, and this one doesn't disappoint even if attachments seem to develop overnight. Instant attachments, with only minor glitches, take less time than the story of how previous attachments were dissolved.
Ms. Green's writing is never arch. She writes with obvious affection for her characters. Despite their flaws, these are likeable people, people who are willing to evolve and learn lessons about themselves and the people they ultimately need to forgive.
Forgiveness plays like a minor character. Each character inevitably comes to the point where he or she needs to bestow forgiveness for old grief - or new revelations - on someone. For more than one character it is self-forgiveness that is required.
And, okay, I admit that I thought the title was, perhaps a titch cheesy, but I know from painful personal experience that titles are often not the purview of the author, but of the marketing folks back at the publishing house. Nonetheless, such a title certainly evokes the idyllic setting one would expect of a blockbuster beach read - which Ms. Green's new book will certainly become.
Jane Green, called one of the founding writers of "chick-lit," is the author of such best selling titles as "Jemima J," "The Other Woman," and "Swapping Lives".
Jane Green will be signing her book, "The Beach House," at Edgartown Books on June 29 at 3 pm.