Beatriz Williams loves writing about those who live and play on the East Coast, and with “The Summer Wives,” she continues to show the rest of us how the 1% live and how those who serve the 1% survive. “The Summer Wives” takes place on a very secluded island where the extremely wealthy spend their summers, and the descendants of Portuguese fishermen and their families serve them.
As is still the case on many of the wealthy Eastern enclaves, there are, then, the “summer people” and the villagers. The villagers live in the beach towns year round, but they make the money they need to live during the summer months when people come to enjoy the azure ocean, the blue sky, and the beach. The wealthy hobnob and the others work. And they do not usually socialize.
But sometimes they do. And when the scions of the wealthy meet the children of the workers, complications can ensue. Williams writes about three different years, clearly noted as each part of the story, and its narrative, begin. In 1930, Bianca, an orphan who is sent from Portugal to Winthrop Island to live with her aunt, uncle and cousin, falls in love with Hugh Fisher. Hugh is the product of new money — too new to live on the side of the island where those with old money reside. So he lives with his family in Greyfriars on the other side of the island, where their new money becomes old money when he marries into one of the families with old wealth.
But Bianca Medeiro has fallen in love with young Hugh and he with her. Like most of the Portuguese, she is religious and believes their love is pure. But when Hugh gets her pregnant just before his wedding to blue-blood Abigail, she is forced into a marriage with a local fisherman to save her reputation and her unborn son. Her family and the others turn against her.
Then there is Miranda Schuyler, whose mother is marrying the now long-divorced Hugh. His daughter Isobel lives with him after her mother, Abigail, has married a French count and lives in Europe. Miranda and Abigail are only a year apart and become close during the summer that their parents marry. Through Isobel, Miranda meets Joseph, Bianca’s son, with whom Isobel has a very close relationship. Miranda thinks Isobel is in love with Joseph, so she hides her own feelings. But it’s soon evident that her love is reciprocated.
The story is told in alternating voices: A third person narrator telling Bianca’s story in present tense — as if the reader is living it with her, and a first person narrative by Miranda telling her story in past tense in 1951 and 1969 when she is eighteen and thirty six.
To be honest, it’s a bit confusing at first. I found myself looking back at the year to see what I was reading more than once, but once the story gets moving, the narrative becomes clearer and makes more sense.
The story builds effectively and movingly. It starts slowly, very slowly, as the reader is introduced to the setting and the characters. There are events not revealed which make readers wonder what is going to happen and what may have happened that they don’t know about yet. There are clues which are only apparent with the advantage of hindsight. But by the end of the novel, the characters and their dilemmas have been revealed, as have their choices.
It’s a compelling journey into the lives of the rich and famous just as much it’s a peek into how the rich often take advantage of those who serve them. Thoughtless, living insulated lives, the wives shop together, dine together and drink together. And boy, do they drink. With the recent revelations about the hard-partying prep schools on the East Coast, this book shows how the children of the wealthy really do drink to excess.
This book is a perfect way to celebrate the ending of summer. Read “The Summer Wives” to see not how the other half live, but how the 1% live.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by William Morrow, the publisher, for review purposes.