Desert Isle Keeper
The Last Bathing Beauty
The charming writing of Amy Sue Nathan and the even more charming heroine she gives us deflect all of The Last Bathing Beauty’s sins. Though the plot has some predictable points, the utterly disarming story is a page turner and a great summer read.
In the summer of 1951, eighteen year old Betty Stern is an ambitious, go-getting gal – blonde, sun-worshipping, fun-loving – with an attitude and spunk that grabs the reader and makes them take notice of her from the first page. We first meet her as she’s preparing to enter into a not-entirely happy shotgun marriage. Betty is going to take a bad hand and turn it into a winning one with time, but she doesn’t know that yet.
In the summer of 2017, Betty is known by the nickname Boop, and she’s a lively eighty-four-year-old whose twenty-six-year-old granddaughter, Hannah, arrives at the cusp of a major life change. Hannah – much like Betty was all those years ago – is pregnant, and torn between entering into a marriage with a man she doesn’t love or trying life as a single mother. Boop knows that the road she took is one that eventually satisfied her, but she’d rather Hannah not make the same mistakes she did.
Both parts of the story take place in South Haven, a Michigan town in the Catskills of the West along Lake Michigan, where the Stern family lives year-round and runs a resort every summer.
There, Betty will grow from a girl set to go to Barnard, who dreams of becoming a fashion magazine editor, into the kind who makes meatloaf on Tuesdays and runs away with her son to Lake Michigan in the summers. From a childhood at her Nannie and Zaide’s home, and rejected by her wannabe, show-business-obsessed parents, she moves into a house of her own, a style of her own. To a life in which her best friends Georgia and Doris – who love her deeply – are ever present, but who harbor secrets from her. From her longing for a last summer romance to a true-love tangle with half-Jewish college guy Abe Barsky, and a choice between him and the safety of a union with her dependable childhood friend, Marv Peck. All the while, the Miss South Haven beauty pageant looms in the background, teasing Betty with possibility. What happens to Betty at the pageant will both allow her a place in history and give her major room to reflect upon her life years down the road.
The worst thing I can say about The Last Bathing Beauty is that its plot is a little predictable. But you won’t notice, once you’re in the embrace of Betty, seeing the world through her eyes and experiencing life in her enclave of resort-dwellers. Nathan gives us a glimpse into Jewish life in the ‘50s that rings true and sings beautifully, and even though Betty’s predicament – and its resolution – is made clear within the first few chapters of the book, it’s no less absorbing a read.
Its characters are mostly well drawn, though Abe doesn’t get enough time to develop layers, Doris fades into the background (she could have been eliminated from the narrative to afford more time to Georgia, who has a crucial role to play), and Hannah is particularly entertaining and interesting.
But it’s the right kind of fluffy, the right kind of sentimental – and the right kind of lively. Though Boop has a few regrets, she’s not even a little bit self-pitying, and her unique voice is captivating. But the book also makes a point about how sexism and narrow-mindedness combined to limit her choices and circumscribe her life down to something smaller.
The Last Bathing Beauty is just as toasty and lovely as a beach in the summertime. It comes with a high recommendation and is well worth losing yourself in for a few hours.
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