It’s easy to slap a sandy vista or a Bermuda-pink font on a book jacket and call it a hot summer read. But the truly good ones — stories with real characters, smart pacing, and plots that don’t collapse like a five-dollar deck chair — can be much harder to find; a maddening, SPF-smeared quest that sometimes lasts until September.
This year’s Memorial Day sweepstakes have already yielded two early front-runners, Jessica Knoll’s The Favorite Sister and Judy Blundell’s The High Season. Both will probably earn their beach-tote ubiquity, though it’s Season that comes closest to the platonic ideal of what these kinds of books should be: a let’s-get-lost tale of romance, high art, and class intrigue set against the backdrop of New York’s bucolic North Fork.
Only a narrow bay away from the Hamptons but an ocean apart from its oligarch mansions and bony socialites, the land’s-end hamlet of Orient is an idyllic village of saltbox bungalows, rutted bike lanes, and overflowing farm stands; the kind of place where “there were no famous faces,” Blundell writes, “only famous résumés.”
That means chefs, architects, and women like Ruthie Beamish, the director of a small but beloved local museum. Ruthie also has a picturesque house on the water that she’s painstakingly restored, a 15-year-old daughter named Jem, and an amicable relationship with Mike, the ex she hasn’t quite gotten around to divorcing yet. Affording the home they love, though, means renting it out for the prime summer months — a transaction that turns personal with the arrival of their new subletter, Adeline Clay, the wealthy widow of a revered painter Ruthie once worked for.
Blundell (who has spent most of her career in YA, often under the pseudonym Jude Watson) casts her net wide: Season teems with angst-riddled teenagers and twentysomething grifters, townies and trophy wives and eccentric billionaires. But she weaves them all together seamlessly, landing somewhere in the smart, breezy sweet spot between Meg Wolitzer and Elin Hilderbrand.
The Favorite Sister is partly set across the water in Montauk, but breezy is not really its lane. A whodunit that begins with the body already buried, Sister follows a group of young female entrepreneurs (turning 35 in their world isn’t actually fatal, but it might as well be) who costar together on a basic-cable reality show called Goal Diggers. Stephanie writes best-selling novels and memoirs; Lauren launched an innovative dating app; Jen is a lifestyle expert cornering the market in sea kelp and self-help; Brett and Kelly are the siblings behind Spoke, a socially conscious indoor-cycling chain. By the fourth-season finale, Brett is dead, and if her castmates know why, they have good reasons not to tell.
Knoll’s 2015 blockbuster, Luckiest Girl Alive, earned inevitable comparisons to Gone Girl, though American Psycho seems like a better fit here. Her take on the collision of celebrity and fourth-wave feminism — with its hunger games and anxiety and self-conscious branding — is wickedly sharp, but it’s coldhearted, too. Knoll would probably just say clear-eyed, and she may be right, though that feels like a hollow victory: Beneath their buttery highlights and Instagram smiles, her women are all cold metal and calculation; Real Housewives dipped in Nietzsche. Still, they’re good, nasty fun to spend time with for a while — even though they would probably never deign to appear in a review like this if they knew they’d have to share the space with another woman, and come in second place.
The High Season: A-
The Favorite Sister: B