I’ve been intrigued for years by things I’ve heard about Beatriz Williams’ work, but it wasn’t until I picked up her latest novel, The Summer Wives, that I realized what a master storyteller the author really is. Reading this book has been one of the high points of my summer, and I can’t wait for others to read and love this family drama as much as I did.
Miranda Schuyler is just eighteen in the summer of 1951. Her father died in the World War II, and Miranda has been struggling to make sense of life without him in it. Her mother, once devastated by her husband’s death, is now ready to move on with her life, and has become engaged to the wealthy Hugh Fisher. Miranda joins her mother and soon-to-be stepfather at the Fisher family home on Winthrop Island, located on the Long Island Sound, and discovers a world unlike anything she ever imagined. Miranda may have graduated from a high-class finishing school, but her family seemed to remain just on the fringes of polite society, but now, as part of the Fisher clan, Miranda will have the kind of good fortune her classmates took for granted.
Unfortunately, life on Winthrop feels strange to Miranda. She immediately takes note of the divide that exists between the wealthy people who flock there during the summer and the working-class residents who make their livings as fishermen and servants for the summer visitors. On the surface, these two very different groups seem to tolerate each other reasonably well, but Miranda, keen observer that she is, can sense the current of tension that runs just beneath the polite masks the island residents wear.
Isobel Fisher, Miranda’s new stepsister, is eager to draw her into the island’s high society, but despite her best efforts, Miranda feels like a fish out of water. Something about Isobel and her super privileged friends makes Miranda uncomfortable, and instead, she finds herself inexorably drawn to Joseph Vargas, whose family tends the local lighthouse. Joseph spends his summers helping his father on his lobster boat, but he plans to head off to college in the fall in hopes of one day leaving Winthrop behind forever.
As the summer passes, tensions begin to mount between the Fisher and the Vargas families. Hugh Fisher doesn’t want either Miranda or Isobel to have anything to do with Joseph, and neither young woman can figure out why. Miranda cares only about the deepening feelings she has for Joseph, and she’s determined to find a way for them to be together forever.
Of course, things don’t work out the way Miranda planned, and in fact, the summer ends in tragedy when Hugh is killed, and Joseph stands accused of the crime. Winthrop’s residents blame Miranda for all the strife, and she flees the island in disgrace, not to return for eighteen long years.
In the summer of 1969 Miranda, now a famous Shakespearian actress in search of a quiet place to take stock of her life, finally comes back to Winthrop. She’s not sure how she’ll be received, but she figures she’s been gone long enough for the scandal to have blown over and been forgotten. Once she arrives, however, she discovers that most people haven’t forgiven her for her part in the horrible events that took place during that long ago summer. The Fishers seem to have fallen on hard times, and Joseph – who was convicted of Hugh’s murder – is rumored to have escaped from prison.
Miranda never believed Joseph was responsible for her stepfather’s death, and she sets about trying to clear his name. She’s not sure if the two of them can ever have a future together, but she’s pretty sure everyone needs to learn the truth about what really happened on the night Hugh died. Unfortunately for Miranda, there is someone on Winthrop who doesn’t want the truth to come to light, someone with dark secrets to hide.
The story moves back and forth between 1951 and 1969, slowly revealing long-hidden truths that have the power to completely alter the lives of those who call Winthrop home. Most of the story is told from Miranda’s point of view, but we are given the occasional glimpse into the thoughts of a few other characters, something that gives the novel a well-rounded, very authentic feel.
I loved watching Miranda change from a timid wallflower into a self-assured, mature woman who refuses to let social conventions dictate the way she lives her life. She makes some foolish decisions when she’s young, but she learns from them. In fact, her poor choices actually seem to help her become a better person in the end.
If you go into this book expecting a mystery, you’re likely to be disappointed. The Summer Wives does contain an undercurrent of suspense, but it’s not the force that drives the story. Instead, the novel’s focus is on the relationships between the various characters, and the ways in which those relationships have influenced their development. There is quite a bit of emphasis on the role family plays in our lives, as the characters struggle to come to terms with all manner of difficult truths.
The writing is lyrical and poignant without being overly dramatic or pretentious. Ms. Williams managed to transport me to a different place and time, and I loved every moment I spent in the world she created. I’ve already purchased several of her back list titles, and I can’t wait to once again lose myself in one of her well-crafted stories.
Buy it at: Amazon/Barnes & Noble/iBooks/Kobo
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