The Summer Cottage
Though Viola Shipman’s The Summer Cottage tries to wrap its ideas in sunshine, warmth and big grins, I was wholly resistant to its charm. I like family happiness and togetherness as much as the next person, but Shipman’s almost cult-like subscription to family love and tradition above all else – as Marian noticed in her review of The Recipe Box – proves an extremely unattractive package.
For Adeleine – Adie Lou – Kruger, there is no place more important to her than Creaky Cottage, her family’s vacation home on Lake Michigan. Her grandparents bought the place from someone who bought it from, they swear, Al Capone (they’ve even framed the bullet holes that resulted from shootout there. Um. Charming?). For four generations, there have been special rules attached to Creaky Cottage, and they must be obeyed by its “magical campers”.
With her son Evan now grown and in college and Adie Lou in the process of pushing through the ensuing middle-aged angst while divorcing Nate, her husband of thirty years, she’s looking for a new purpose in life. While Nate wants her to sell Creaky Cottage and stay in Chicago (where Adie Lou works in advertising), she chooses instead to try to make a go of refurbishing the property into an eight room bed and breakfast. This requires taking only two more years of support from Nate and giving him three quarters instead of one half of the profits of the sale of their house. But with that arranged, she quits her job and begins work on the property, hoping to work during the spring months and open that very summer.
Fortunately for her, Frank Van Til, a carpenter whose great-grandfather (because no one in a Shipman novel is allowed to pursue interests of their own) built Creaky Cottage, is willing to do renovation work for a couple of hundred thousand, shows up to help – and she develops a relationship with Scott – Scooter – Stevens, the town’s golden boy, an old childhood friend and now a boat builder who offers to repair Adie’s wooden schooner. Scooter and Adie also soon embark on a romance. Unfortunately, Adie soon finds a nemesis in the local Preservation Committee matron Iris Dragoon (YES REALLY), who disapproves of Adie Lou’s choice to turn Creaky Cottage into an inn. As Adie fights seemingly insurmountable odds to make her dreams come true, luck, fate and true love combine to try to clear a pathway.
Whew. As you may have been able to tell from reading this review so far, Shipman has a problem with stock characterization. Characters speechify their feelings and spout out neat, pat sentiments that feel like they were learned from a Hallmark card. No one feels like a human being – they’re either perfect constructs that fart glitter and light, or b-level comedic villains. No one has a trade or an interest of their own – everything is handed down, person to person, as if they’ve never evolved away from their Cro-Magnon ancestors.
Adie Lou comes off as being extremely childlike. Unhappy with her life for years, she decides the path to joy involves curling up like a fetus in the womb of her happy childhood instead of… I don’t know, moving to Paris and learning how to tango. She’s the kind of character who reacts with wide-eyed eagerness when her handyman informs her that her maiden name means ‘innkeeper’ in German. Clearly, fate is intervening here! And she cries a lot. Cries all the time. Cries until you wish she were as emotionally constipated as Nate.
Shipman has a special way of making domestic life sound like a corny cult; there’s nothing that sunshine and ignoring your troubles won’t solve, and enforced togetherness is healthy. Wake up Smiling! Or you’re a stick in the mud! Anyone who’s realistically grumpy or practical is clearly not worth the time or thought. Core example: Adie Lou’s parents have a tradition at Creaky House whereby everyone must recite the ten-plus rules they have attached to the cabin before the sparklers they hold go out. One year, Nate declares that he wants to get the food they’ve brought into the fridge instead, all the while rolling his eyes at his wife’s family’s corniness. The narrative says that Nate is a stick in the mud who makes his kids sad. Sorry, book, I’m apt to side with Nate, who’s standing there holding melting perishables and risking giving the kids food poisoning if they don’t keep those hot dogs cold, instead of Adie Lou’s almost psychotically cheerful parents who are rebelling against local firework safety codes. Nonstop smiling will not save you when you’re spewing up warm potato salad or trying to put out the falling-down pile of a summer cabin you set ablaze with your sparklers.
The relationships are cartoonish as well. I have no idea how, from the contextual evidence Shipman gives us, Adie and Nate fell in love in the first place – she came from a Pyramid Gifts Catalog layout, he clearly budded off of the three male leads from the First Wives’ Club in a cloning experiment gone wrong. She’s angry about his affair – but happy to use the support payments he’s willing to give her for the next two years as a safety net while she tries to make the B&B happen. She and her best friend – childless and single lawyer Trish – speak to each other as if they’re test-flying a Positive Thought workshop. Her relationship with Scooter is also crafted of pure nostalgia, but it’s the best thing in the novel; at least, mutually blinded by the past, they seem to fit together; cut from the same childish cloth, and they speak of how daring to want ‘more’ than their tiny hometown was bad. Evan and Adie’s relationship is unrealistically supportive and sometimes borderline incestuous as he promises to ‘catch her if she falls’ and she walks around the house in his discarded sweats and they share a single mind and finish each other’s sentences. And then there’s elderly Iris, whose whole purpose in the plot is to show up to laugh at Adie Lou like a mean girl straight out of high school and sneer like the dimestore Cruella DeVille she is. She’s accompanied by a chorus of three elderly women who exist in several scenes to back her up and repeat her words verbatim. Fate, bad comedy and awful cheap mock-wisdom make up the plot, and yes, it dares to throw in a half-blind Labrador abandoned to the winter snow by its evil ex-owners to try to stone-press every possible tear from the reader’s rolling eyeballs.
Shipman – who is actually Wade Rouse writing under a pen name created from his grandmother’s names – wrote this novel as a celebration of unconventional women, which is what makes the slavish obsession with tradition that runs throughout the novel so incredibly irritating. He claims that this novel is based on something that really, no fooling, happened to one of his grandmothers. All I can say is I wish her writing had been preserved and published. It seems as if she got all the talent in the family.