Beatriz Williams has made a name for herself as a historical novelist with a knack for the obscured whisperings and yearnings of women’s lives, those so often absent from the historical record. She adds to that canon with The Summer Wives, an elegiac romance and mystery that flits between three summers – 1930, 1951, and 1969 – on the small New England outpost of Winthrop Island.
In 1969, Miranda Schulyer returns to her teenage home on the island, a decaying estate known as Greyfriars, bearing a vast amount of secrets and wounds. Her arrival comes in the wake of Joseph Vargas’ escape from prison; Vargas is a local islander convicted of murdering her stepfather whom Miranda also found herself inexplicably drawn to as a girl. In both 1969 and 1951, Miranda fumbles at piecing together the yearnings of her heart and the path to her future.
Williams writes of Miranda’s journey in both timelines with a keen eye for the wounds unique to both the first flushes of teenage love and an older, deeper, more enduring ache. Miranda’s uncertainties, desires, and grief all linger just under the surface, waiting for someone to come and press her many bruises – as the reader waits, in turn, to see whether she will merely endure the pain, relish it, or push back.
Williams’ particular gift as a writer is peeling back the pages of history to breathe life into the interior lives of women — how they lived, loved, and lost within the expectations and limitations of their time. With The Summer Wives, she has perhaps crafted her most evocative and stirring novel yet. Its sense of loss, guilt, and recrimination packs a punch, but Williams also never loses a buoyant feeling of hope, a belief in a longed-for happily-ever-after of one’s own making. She weaves a spell that propels the reader forcefully into the past, crafting an intoxicating vintage atmosphere, a portrait of what may seem a more elegant time. But Williams also never falls into the trap of nostalgia, always taking care to draw back the curtain on this sparkling world to show the rottenness at its core – a rot that threatens to eat at the souls of her protagonists, lest they wrest themselves free from its influence.
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Her immense talent as a writer is to usher you into a setting that feels as if it may only continue to exist, hell, maybe only ever existed, on the pages of books and the flickers of the silver screen. Once she takes you there, however, she doesn’t let you rest within it’s glittering confines, but rather exposes the costs of this world and the exacting toll it placed upon those who dared to yearn for more beyond their prescribed station and role in life. Here, this is enhanced by the fact that Miranda is a film star, playing dually with this notion of the divide between the false front women present to the world and their interior lives.
Given the novel’s circumstances – a first love potentially wrongfully imprisoned – it’s impossible not to draw comparisons to Atonement. The Summer Wives is perhaps less profound in some ways (it’s certainly less devastating), but it probes similar questions of passion, regret, and classism. Miranda and all the residents of Winthrop Island are caught in the stifling limitations of the 1950s – urged to keep up appearances as members of the more patrician families on the Island and to avoid getting too friendly with the local working class fishermen. More than anything, the novel is about learning to break free of those bonds – finding a way to live a life that’s true to oneself beyond the yoke of societal expectations.
The novel is also a compelling mystery that will keep you turning the pages to discover both the secrets of the past and the prospects of the future. Williams writes with compassion and empathy for all of her characters, beguiling you with twists and turns through the revelation of secrets that if not utterly unpredictable, are still shattering in their implications. You might see the truth coming like a large ocean wave rumbling offshore, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less when it finally crashes into shore.
With The Summer Wives, Williams has crafted a kaleidoscope of a novel – a mystery, a romance, and an utterly beguiling examination of the cost of secrets. With its pulsing period atmosphere, The Summer Wives is a startling portrait of the courage it requires to make your own second chances — and embrace them open-heartedly knowing full well they could slip through your fingers in an instant. B+