I picked Jeanette Baker’s Chesapeake Summer to review because I had enjoyed her previous writing. So I had great expectations for this new book, which, unfortunately, was beyond disappointing. The story was so complex, with so many different plots and characters, that it was almost impenetrable. I was confused for a good portion of the story.
The story begins with a flashback to Marshy Hope Creek fifteen years earlier with a car exploding. Then three more days unwind to show what led up to the car’s blowing up.
Amanda Wentworth is reported to be the victim of the explosion, her body burned beyond recognition. She had just discovered that her husband, the prominent Judge Quinton Wentworth, was having an affair with Lizzie the town prostitute, and even had a seven year old son by her. Lizzie, whose son Bailey witnessed the fight, demands and receives – in exchange for her silence – the deed to a piece of land the judge had taken illegally from her drunken father.
Another plot in the same flashback involves Verna Lee Fontaine, who opened a coffee shop on the same day as Amanda’s accident. Verna Lee, a friend of Lizzie’s, recently quit her teaching job in California to return to Marshy Hope Creek to open her own business. This fuels speculation in the small town, especially as no one knows who her mother and father were.
Flash forward fifteen years and a body is found on the swampy land now owned by Bailey, who is in the midst of selling the land to a developer. He is opposed in this by Verna Lee, an environmentalist who waxes rhapsodic about the joys of the swamp and has a history of arrest and civil disobedience over environmental causes.
Sheriff’s Detective Wade Atkins, who has had to live down the reputations of his father and brothers, is called in to handle the case and discover the identity of the body. Shortly after starting his investigation, he rediscovers his high school crush on Verna Lee and her wonderful food. He begins courting her even while he is investigating her to determine if the reason she left California is connected with the mystery woman found in the swamp.
To make matters even more convoluted, it is revealed that four years earlier, Verna Lee was acknowledged as the daughter of town matron Nola Ruth and an unknown black man. Unbelievably, the family and the town took this news in stride, which did not seem at all realistic. The question of who fathered Verna Lee was not revealed by Nola Ruth, but to any reader it is obvious that he is the mysterious stranger who appears in the flashback. My frustration arose because his initial description didn’t reveal his skin color. In the flashback Anton Deveraux thinks Verna Lee looks familiar and is later seen arguing with Nola Ruth, and then he disappears – really disappears – until the very end of the book. As far as suspense novels go, that’s not really fair to the reader.
The treatment of Anton is typical of several characters that appear, serve some purpose in the plot and then disappear again to be referred to at the end of the story. And even then some plot points are left unresolved. There are also references to Bailey having been on trial for murder and found innocent four years before. One is left wondering why, who he was supposed to have murdered…and did he really do it? The truth of this is mentioned almost in passing much later and was a completely unnecessary plot point without any impact on the story whatsoever.
This book made for incredibly frustrating reading. I found that the author’s multiple plots and characters made the book almost incoherent. In addition, the characters were all cardboard, with no depth to them. I had to reread many pages just to keep the relationships of the large families straight, which wasn’t helped by the interlocking and almost incestuous relationships of the leading families. If Ms. Baker had had half the number of characters and focused on one plot, this would have made for a much better book. I honestly thought that if I had to read one more paean to the joys of the swamp and bay, I would throw the book at the wall.
For me there was no saving grace in Chesapeake Summer and the fact it was written by an author I had previously enjoyed made the disappointment even worse. I only wish I could give this book an F-.