One of the many things I love about Susanna Kearsley’s, Lauren Willig’s, Karen White’s, and now Beatriz Williams’s writing is their fidelity to the HEA. They hybridise various forms, historical novel, romance, gothic novel, mystery, murder or otherwise, social novel, they mash it up and produce novels that never fail to end up among my year’s favourites. Like their closest predecessor, Mary Stewart, they write in the first person (which used to be a romance-rarity but not so these days), creating a young, female protagonist who moves from innocence to experience during the narrative’s course. All this can well describe Beatriz Williams’s The Summer Wives, a novel that had me in its thrall over two days, waking up at dawn today to finish it. Initially, the novel impressed me as convoluted, with a plethora of characters and three historical narrative strands, but the voice of its central character and first-person narrator, Miranda née Schuyler Thomas, offered an Ariadne ball as I made my way through Williams’s labyrinth of love, hate, revenge, and betrayal. Underlying it was the susurration of Shakespeare’s Tempest, not only thanks to the eponymous heroine, but an island with native and visiting denizens, the sea’s ever-present beauty and danger, and a mystical, outside-of-time atmosphere. I would read it, stopping for a cup of tea and a biscuit, and whisper to myself, “Full fathom five thy father lies … ”
The novel opens in 1969, the summer of the moon landing (and a brilliant scene set to it and key to the novel too), with Shakespearean actress Miranda Schuyler’s return to Winthrop Island, Long Island Sound. She is battered and bruised from a car accident and running away from her husband, Carroll Goring. It is her first time back since the summer of 1951. On the island are her mother Francine, stepsister Isobel, the dilapidated gothic home, Greyfriars, she, Isobel, and Francine once shared with her dead stepfather, Hugh Fisher. Also awaiting her are the unresolved memories, relationships, and events of the summer of ’51. While we have the impression that Miranda, at the novel’s opening, is running away from her London life, by the end, it is obvious that she has been running towards her life – and that life is encompassed by everything the island and its lighthouse, Fleet Rock, meant to her during that post-war summer.
When the callow Miranda arrived on the island in ’51, her mother was set to marry the wealthy, glamorous golden-man Hugh Fisher. Hugh is the rich, young, wild, hard-drinking golden-boy of the 1930 narrative as well (which introduces the island’s two sets of inhabitants: the Portuguese fisherman and servants who live on the island year-round and the summer vacationers, white, rich, privileged, enjoying gin- and rum-laden nights and days). The then-22-year-old Hugh sleeps a swathe through the island’s beauties, white-privileged and Portuguese-poor. His affair with one of the latter is key to the narrative’s eventual resolution.
Miranda spends that first, fateful summer in the wake of her mercurial stepsister Isobel. Isobel smokes, drinks, and yearns to see the world. She is engaged to Clayton Monk, who proves to be, at least to this reader, as much a hero as the actual one. Isobel also carries on a clandestine friendship with one of the island’s Portuguese lobstermen, Joseph Vargas, the son of the lighthouse keeper and his cloistered wife. Through parties and sails, Isobel leads Miranda about, with Miranda acting as Isobel’s go-between with Joseph. Joseph and Miranda fall in love that summer, but all is aborted when Joseph kills her step-father, Hugh Fisher. In 1969, as Miranda returns to a much-diminished Greyfriars, a shaggy mom and aged Isobel, Joseph Vargas has escaped the state pen.
Like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the island is the place where unresolved estrangement, injustice, and a pair of star-crossed lovers lie dormant. With Miranda’s return as a fulcrum, Williams steers her narrative ship past the shoals and banks of time, to echo another of the Bard’s plays, revealing her characters’ tragedies. Those tragedies at times strained my melodramatic tolerance. “Was every man a raping, abusive ass? Was every woman that passive?” (Except Isobel, who wasn’t and then she was.) “Is everyone in this darn novel awful, or cryptic, or resigned, pliable, compliant?” I have to say the most likeable of Williams’s characters are Clayton the cuckold and Joseph the murderer, so that says something. But I wanted to know what happened, I wanted someone to achieve some happiness and I read on, stopping only for food, sleep, and Sunday morning church services.
What melodramatic middle I read, whatever thoughts of this Miranda, how yielding can she be, was worth it to read the novel’s last quarter. Williams did not betray the HEA: she held it up glorious and triumphant, vindication for the wronged, comeuppance for the wrong-doing, and a future of love, fidelity, commitment, purposefulness, and happiness for Miranda and Company. If you read one novel this summer (and you’ll see why it’s titled “Summer Wives”, most apropos), make it this one. Just be sure to have a few days of holiday when you start, because you won’t want to stop or delay reaching the end. With Miss Austen, we see in Beatriz Williams’s The Summer Wives evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Beatriz Williams’s The Summer Wives is published by William Morrow. It was released on July 10th and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-ARC from William Morrow, via Edelweiss+.