In “That Summer,” Jennifer Weiner returns to her beloved Cape to share the tale of two Dianas, who each in her own way have had her life’s ambitions destroyed by one man. The difference is that one Diana has her life destroyed—almost—when she is fifteen while the other Diana is seduced into choosing a life of postponed dreams and belittled ambitions.
When Daisy (formerly known as Diana) Shoemaker gets a series of emails by mistake—her email address is one punctuation mark different from the intended recipient—she is amused and enjoys getting a glimpse into the life of a woman who seems so different from her. Daisy got married with a year remaining of college, and she spent the next decade and a half devoted to her husband and her daughter. She kept their beautiful house immaculate, cooked elaborate meals, entertained her husband’s business partners and friends. She has a small business teaching cooking, but any ambitions she had nourished withered from her husband’s indifference. She doted on her daughter until her daughter no longer wanted to be doted upon, and then she completely failed to understand her daughter’s unorthodox hobbies and independent nature.
When Diana of the misaddressed emails apologizes and offers to meet Daisy in New York for a drink, Daisy is thrilled. She imagines the single, businesswoman Diana as worldly, independent, successful, and the anthesis of everything Daisy is. We eventually learn that Diana has gone to incredible lengths to meet Daisy and form a relationship with her. Weiner slowly coaxes out the details and takes us from the past to the present and then back to the past to fill in the story. We learn, in a carefully wrought narrative that alternates from Diana to Daisy’s point of view, about the family of each and how those relationships influenced and propelled each girl on their quite different paths to womanhood. Weiner also, to a lesser extent, shares the story from Daisy’s daughter, Beatrice’s point of view, and once only from Hal, Daisy’s husband’s point of view.
Because Weiner and her family spend so much time on the Cape, that setting becomes real to us as well. We can picture the brilliant water and the bright blue cloudless skies, and we can smell the salt of the briny water and feel the sand under our feet as Diana walks around her cottage. And because of Weiner’s impressive writing chops, we are bereft when Diana loses her rescue dog many years after she adopted him and when he was an old, old dog, just as our mouths water when Weiner describes the food both at the restaurant on the Cape where Diana works and in Daisy’s own kitchen.
Women who must overcome emotional hardship and become strong in their own right, a fabulous setting on the beach, delicious meals, and a wonderful friendship all serve to make this a book that is engrossing and touching. Weiner treats both Dianas almost tenderly as she shares their troubled tales. Weiner doesn’t shy away from politics, and she’s not afraid to point out that someone on the US Supreme Court was accused of drunkenly raping someone, and in spite of the credible accusation, was seated on the bench of the highest court in the land. Who felt the fallout from the accusation? The female accuser, of course, because that’s how it usually works in our (in)justice system. And while the story is about #MeToo, it’s also about protecting the next generation of women and empowering them. It’s about sharing and supporting each other, and it’s also, maybe, about forgiveness. The ending is such that we don’t know what Daisy will do, and we are content with that, perhaps because we know that whatever decision Daisy makes will be the right one for her and her daughter.
While this is certainly—thanks to the Cape setting—a beach read, it is not a lighthearted novel. It’s about violence and cruelty and the harsh reality that a life of privilege often means a life in which wrongs are not righted. And perhaps the ultimate cruelty of fate is that on the eve of the novel’s release, Jennifer Weiner’s beloved mother passed away. Even her short passage sharing the news of her mother’s passing is lovely.
“Frances Frumin Weiner, 77, died peacefully this morning at her home in Connecticut. She leaves her wife, Clair, their dog, Lincoln, four children, six grandchildren, three containers of sour cream, each half full, fourteen pairs of activity-specific sneakers, and a copy of the New York Times, open and folded to the crossword puzzle. I love you, Mom.”
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.