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Sunday, November 27, 2022

From Cape Cod to Martha’s Vineyard to the Caribbean, These Beach Reads Will Whisk You Into Summer

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By Jennifer Weiner
432 pp. Atria. $28.

Weiner, the undisputed boss of the beach read, is back with another stunner. Part mystery and part love story, with a strong dash of coming-of-age, “That Summer” welcomes readers into the lives of Diana “Daisy” Shoemaker, her teenage daughter, Beatrice, and Diana Starling, the glamorous corporate consultant whose emails mistakenly land in Daisy’s inbox.

In her early 20s, Daisy put her own aspirations on hold to marry a wealthy, domineering, to-the-manner-born lawyer, Hal Shoemaker, who still defines himself by his years at an elite New Hampshire boarding school. Even after decades of marriage, Daisy exists on the periphery of Hal’s world, a homemaker whose efforts are occasionally appreciated but never admired.

Diana’s misplaced emails offer a glimpse into a life of glitz and independence in a time when Daisy’s life feels particularly small. While Daisy’s cooking, cleaning and coaxing monosyllables out of her teenage daughter, Diana is jetting off to tennis tournaments and celebrating birthdays with spa weekends in Marin County. Soon the two women strike up an unlikely friendship, but the reader suspects that Diana is keeping secrets — big ones. You don’t have to be a detective to see that more connects her to Daisy than their shared first name. While the mystery’s grand reveal is fairly obvious, the getting there is fraught with tension and twists that keep the pages turning furiously.

Weiner’s book is less concerned with what happened that summer on the Cape than with how the impact of that event has ricocheted wildly across the years, coloring the lives of Diana, Daisy and now Beatrice. It’s a thoughtful approach that allows characters depth and complexity, rather than reducing any one of them to a singular moment of trauma.

“That Summer” incisively examines the way privilege shapes and shields those who wield it, and explores the circuitous path toward healing when justice falls short. Despite the heavy subject matter, Weiner’s prose is as warm and inviting as ever.

By Sunny Hostin
400 pp. William Morrow. $27.99.

Hostin’s debut novel is aspirational escapism at its best, balancing an idyllic setting and lush, evocative language with emotional heft and adroit social commentary.

Since coming to New York from New Orleans in 1972, Amelia Vaux has found success on Wall Street and lasting love with steady, adoring Omar Tanner. Together, Ama and Omar have built their dream life, including a gorgeous summer home in the exclusive Black beach community of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard.

Though they have no children of their own, Ama and Omar have lavished love and support onto their three — now grown — goddaughters: Perry, a lawyer; Olivia, a financial analyst; and Billie, a marine biologist.

Strangely, the Vaux Tanners seem to have chosen their goddaughters at random, with no obvious prior connection to their families — but each woman privately wonders whether there’s more to the story.

For years, their questions went unasked, but everything is changing now. Since Omar died, 60-something Ama is looking toward her next act. She invites the three women to spend one last summer in Oak Bluffs — with the promise that, by the end of the season, she’ll select a lucky benefactor who will inherit the house.

Hostin, who is a co-host of “The View,” nails the balance of sisterly affection and jealousy between her subjects, creating a dynamic that feels wholly authentic when it could have veered toward caricature. Like their godmother, Perry, Olivia and Billie have created lives that look perfect on paper — but like Ama, they’re harboring secrets. Over the course of their final summer together, tensions rise, relationships are tested, and all is revealed in a thoughtful, nuanced fashion.

While Ama and Omar’s decision to withhold information from their goddaughters isn’t fully explored, the twists and turns of the mystery are genuinely surprising and pack an emotional wallop. Hostin’s story is a vast, intricate and ultimately rewarding one about love, family and self-fulfillment.

Despite the weightier subject matter, the language feels like a warm breeze through a silk shirt. In short, this book is summer incarnate.

By Katherine St. John
416 pp. Grand Central. $28.

If there’s one word to describe “The Siren,” it’s this: salacious. Cole Power, a megastar, is making a movie — his son Jackson’s directorial debut. Despite Cole’s icy relationship with Jackson, he has not only agreed to fund the film, but has also agreed to star in it opposite his ex-wife, Jackson’s former stepmother, Stella Rivers. For Stella, the project is a lifeboat. After her one-year marriage fizzled, she endured a very public meltdown, a stint in rehab and a failed reality show that left her financially ruined. Her career is nonexistent. Her money is gone. The only thing holding her together is her enigmatic assistant, Felicity, and the chance at redemption offered by a starring role.

Taylor Wasserman, a disgraced producer, also needs “The Siren” to catapult her back to respectability in the industry. The three narrators — plus the articles, interviews and Instagram posts scattered throughout — make for a reading experience that’s as layered and decadent as a slice of tiramisu.

On the outermost layer, news reports and gossip columns show the media’s perception of events, from a distance. Taylor’s chapters deal primarily with the challenges of being a woman in Hollywood. Stella’s sections dive a bit deeper, probing the American obsession with building up women only to destroy them.

But perhaps most intimate of all are the chapters following Felicity from childhood to present, which brilliantly flip the “small-town girl coming to L.A. with a dream” cliché on its head. Is she after a role, revenge or something else?

As St. John reveals the assistant’s dark past and teases at her true motive, the sense of foreboding grows alongside the threat of a hurricane hitting the film’s shooting location in the Caribbean.

If you put “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo,” “Gone Girl” and “Big Little Lies” into a blender, you might get “The Siren” — pulpy and scandalous enough to compete with a glossy-paged gossip rag, but with brisk, lucid writing.

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