Reading Jennifer Weiner’s books about idyllic summers spent on Cape Cod makes one yearn to pack up and head for the nearest beach. The sky is almost always blue, the water is clear, and the salty aroma in the air only serves to make readers hungry for a lobster roll or an ice cream cone, just like the ones in which the characters in the book indulge. In her latest novel, “The Summer Place,” we meet the Danhauser family and assorted relatives. The heart of the book is the story about three generations of women, grandmother/mother Veronica Levy (Ronnie); Sarah Weinberg Danhauser, her daughter; and Ruby, Sarah’s husband’s daughter from a previous marriage. Ruby and her boyfriend Gabe have decided to get married, and they are having the wedding at Ronnie’s beautiful beach-side home on the Cape.
We also hear from the house. Yes, the house that had protected those three generations from wind and sun and inclement weather is a character in the story. She is the house who hears she might be sold and is determined to not let that happen. It’s a testament to Weiner’s writing chops that she manages to create a character that is an inanimate object like a house, and skillfully imbues that writing with enough emotion to choke this reader up at the very end.
So while the focus of this book is the fact that everyone will be coming to Ronnie’s house on the Cape for the wedding, it’s really about that weekend being a time when family members are forced to unburden themselves about truths that had been hidden. Along the way, we learn about Sarah’s childhood with her twin brother Sam, spending delicious summers on the beach, swimming in the nearby pond, riding bikes, fishing, and relaxing together. Sarah, as is typical of today’s mothers, has her two young sons so busy with camp and lessons that they can’t just spend summers at her mother’s home, much to her mother’s chagrin. Yes, they spend a day or two with her, here and there, but Ronnie realizes, sadly, that her best course of action is to sell her beautiful home and get something more practical for just her. Her beloved husband is gone, and it’s time to move on. Her children are not going to bring their children to the Cape for those idyllic summers she remembers having with her own children.
We learn about Sarah’s first love and the heartache it resulted in, and we learn about her twin brother Sam’s struggle after his wife died suddenly, leaving him with a stepson because the boy’s father isn’t interested in being a father. In fact, there are several parents in this story who decide that parenting isn’t for them, but there are others who are more than happy to take up that job. Sarah’s husband Eli is hiding something, but he refuses to talk to Sarah about what it is, and she suspects the worst.
At first, the sheer number of characters seems a bit overwhelming. But that quickly settles in as we get to know each one and understand the relationships and their history. Interestingly, we realize that Ronnie’s character was first introduced in Weiner’s last book, “That Summer,” as the woman whom one of the main characters, Diana, worked for. It was Ronnie who sold Diana the cottage she lived in. If you haven’t read that book, no worries. It’s not a big deal, just a small connection about life on the Cape.
Over the course of the story, all the main characters face life-changing circumstances or realizations that end up bringing them all together, closer. Weiner challenges us to think carefully about secrets. Which secrets are important to share with those we love and which secrets are important to never reveal, because revealing an unpleasant secret might have repercussions and cause irreparable harm. Are all secrets bad? What if by keeping a secret, one can keep a marriage going? Keep a child happy? She also makes us ponder what constitutes a family. If a parent doesn’t want to be involved in the life of a child, is that person still the child’s mother or father? Or is it the person who loved that child and raised her or him with kindness and moral support? What part does simple biology play? For this reason and for these questions, “The Summer Place” would create many fabulous discussions at book clubs. And, of course, it is the perfect choice to bring to a vacation on the beach so that one might enjoy the salty sea air while reading about something that might be taking place just down the coast.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.