Summer Island is a mother-daughter reunion tale with a sentimental, too-easy solution to the emotionally wrenching problem of parental abandonment.
Ruby Bridge is an unsuccessful, unemployed comedienne who has just been fired from her day job for slacking off. She has no money, and her boyfriend has left her. Yet adversity has not done anything to mold her character. She is sinking in self-pity when she gets a call that Joe Cochran wants her on his controversial new talk show. Believing this is her big chance, Ruby is excited – until she realizes that they want her on the show to talk about her mother and the big scandal that is breaking.
Nora Bridge left her marriage and her family eleven years ago. She now has a thriving multi-media advice business, but her relationships with her daughters Ruby and Caroline are both strained. Nora has to tiptoe around Caroline, and Ruby hasn’t spoken to her in all. When Nora’s career is threatened by explicit photographs which reveal another side of American’s best loved moralizer, she gets drunk and rams her car into a tree. When she wakes up, all she can think of is getting away. Caroline offers the use of the family summer cottage, and Nora thinks that’s a fine idea – except that her leg is broken and she needs someone to take care of her temporarily.
Ruby isn’t feeling particularly nursemaid-ish, but Caché magazine offers her $50,000 to do a tell-all story on her mother, and they expect all of the nasty details. In order to do a good job on the story, Ruby feels like she should know her mother more, so she volunteers to take care of her on the island. The only problem is, once she begins talking to her mother again in that familiar, cozy setting, Ruby realizes she’s been wrong all along. She doesn’t know everything about her mother, and what she learns makes her feel pretty darned guilty about writing the article.
Interspersed with this mother/daughter story is the reunion of Eric and Dean Sloan. The Sloans grew up with the Bridges on the San Juan Islands. Dean and Ruby once had a teenaged love affair that went sour after Nora left. As Dean and Eric grew up, they grew apart, and Eric’s coming out of the closet didn’t help anything. They’ve hardly spoken for years when Eric calls his brother to tell him he’s dying of cancer and has chosen to go back to the islands to die. Dean drops everything and returns, but is he up for the emotional upsets of seeing his brother die and meeting his first love again?
Hannah is a competent writer, and the story flows smoothly and easily. This book was no chore to read, and I didn’t begin to count the pages until the final third. The writing is pretty in spots, even though Hannah does have a tendency to wax metaphorical. Sentences such as “But now a lifetime’s worth of poor choices left her on the outside, looking at her own daughters through a pane of glass as thick as a child’s broken heart.” are common and get to be tedious after a time.
Unfortunately Hannah’s good writing skills were used in vain on unlikable characters. Ruby is a real brat. Eleven years ago, things didn’t go her way and so everyone around her has suffered her displeasure ever since. She’s cut off all ties with her mother, she hasn’t seen her father in years, and her relationship with her sister is all surface. She whines about her day job and her lack of success in comedy. She is willing to betray her mother (and by extension, her whole family) for money that she throws away on a vanity car and some new duds. She can’t open her mouth without saying something snide, hurtful, or offensive. And Hannah’s repetitive assertions that Nora was a wonderful mother before she bailed rang false. Obviously Ruby needed to have her butt paddled a little more often. Ruby does transform in the course of the book, but the difference between the old and new is so startling that it’s highly unbelievable. It also happens in about a week.
Nora is self-involved and bogged down in regret and self-pity. She spent eleven years building her advice-giving empire, but is apparently willing to fling it all to the wind at the first whiff of scandal. Her behavior in the divorce was much the same. If it was too difficult, she didn’t do it. But then she spent all her personal time nursing her regrets. If Ruby was so all-fire important to her, why didn’t she fight harder for their relationship during the period of their separation? Do more than just call and send presents? Why didn’t she consistently, continuously refuse to be ignored by her daughter?
Another problem is that the book is so preachy. It’s not religious in any way, but the author obviously believes in the Family is Everything creed, and the book asserts over and over that you must reconcile and reunite with your family if you are to be a successful person. Hannah also bangs the reader over the head constantly with the juxtaposition of what her characters are feeling vs. what they should be feeling if they were whole, forgiving, self-actualized persons. That these same characters psychoanalyze themselves and others is even more annoying.
The book and its setting have a fake-y, fantastical feel to it, as if the San Juan Islands have been sprinkled with magic forgiveness powder. Characters who have up until this point been rude, surly, distant and uncaring suddenly find it all important to confess their sins, reconcile, and go back to the way things used to be in the Good Old Days. Somehow, it’s all a little much. The scene that drove this home was when Ruby’s father and Nora’s ex – by all accounts a rather uncommunicative man – drives over to the summer cottage specifically to ask for Nora’s forgiveness. He makes a point of saying that everything was his fault. What man would do this for his ex? Especially for an ex whose recent scandal has brought the old family nastiness into the spotlight again? And if this guy was burning up with guilt, what stopped him from expressing these sentiments before? The timing of all of this emotional outpouring seems highly coincidental.
And the romance is about as unnatural and transplanted as a hairpiece. Ruby and Dean haven’t seen each other for eleven years, and yet their love never died, never diminished in the slightest bit. All it takes is one not-so-detailed conversation, and everything is hunky dory. Dean is not developed at all as a character, and Ruby is so obnoxious it’s impossible to see what he sees in her.
This book seemed to have three goals, and none of them were successfully achieved. For each goal, I can think of a book that is better and less manipulative. For a more touching and realistic (albeit less rosy) story of the emotional aftermath of parental abandonment, read Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner. A much more tender book about the death of a best friend is No Place Like Home by Barbara Samuel. And to see a more convincing heroine transformation, try The Suitor by Sandy Hingston. I’d recommend any of these over Summer Island.