Book Review: The Summer Place by Jennifer Weiner

Title: The Summer Place
Author: Jennifer Weiner
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: May 10, 2022
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When her twenty-two-year-old stepdaughter announces her engagement to her pandemic boyfriend, Sarah Danhauser is shocked. But the wheels are in motion. Headstrong Ruby has already set a date (just three months away!) and spoken to her beloved safta, Sarah’s mother Veronica, about having the wedding at the family’s beach house on Cape Cod. Sarah might be worried, but Veronica is thrilled to be bringing the family together one last time before putting the big house on the market.

But the road to a wedding day usually comes with a few bumps. Ruby has always known exactly what she wants, but as the wedding date approaches, she finds herself grappling with the wounds left by the mother who walked out when she was a baby. Veronica ends up facing unexpected news, thanks to her meddling sister, and must revisit the choices she made long ago, when she was a bestselling novelist with a different life. Sarah’s twin brother, Sam, is recovering from a terrible loss, and confronting big questions about who he is—questions he hopes to resolve during his stay on the Cape. Sarah’s husband, Eli, who’s been inexplicably distant during the pandemic, confronts the consequences of a long ago lapse from his typical good-guy behavior. And Sarah, frustrated by her husband, concerned about her stepdaughter, and worn out by challenges of life during quarantine, faces the alluring reappearance of someone from her past and a life that could have been.

When the wedding day arrives, lovers are revealed as their true selves, misunderstandings take on a life of their own, and secrets come to light. There are confrontations and revelations that will touch each member of the extended family, ensuring that nothing will ever be the same.

From “the undisputed boss of the beach read” (The New York Times), The Summer Place is a testament to family in all its messy glory; a story about what we sacrifice and how we forgive. Enthralling, witty, big-hearted, and sharply observed, this is Jennifer Weiner’s love letter to the Outer Cape and the power of home, the way our lives are enriched by the people we call family, and the endless ways love can surprise us. 

Jennifer Weiner excels at depicting families in all their messy glory — day-to-day life, tensions, love, secrets, and joy — and making it all feel significant and real. In The Summer Place, we meet a large family through the eyes of each of its members, and learn how deeply secrets can run and how much damage they can do, even in a family fully of love and acceptance.

The Summer Place takes place post-pandemic. People are going out again, reuniting with far-flung family members they’ve only seen on FaceTime for two years, experiencing life outside the home and shaking off the long stagnation of quarantine.

For Sarah Levy-Weinberg, it’s a relief, but problems linger. Sarah spent the pandemic working from home alongside her endodontist husband, her stepdaughter Ruby and Ruby’s boyfriend Gabe, and her two younger boys — and the impact on her marriage has not been good. Sarah and Eli had been doing great, but something changed during these two years. Eli, once loving and attentive, has become distracted and cold, and refuses to talk to Sarah about why. It’s driving her crazy, and so are all those little habit of Eli’s that might not have bothered her so much if they weren’t stuck in the house together ALL DAY LONG.

Like his flipflops. Oh my, there’s something so real about the descriptions of Sarah being driven absolutely bonkers by hearing Eli’s slap-slapping footsteps as he paces while he works. I mean, who can’t relate to that sense of utter craziness brought on by someone else’s innocent but totally annoying habits?

When Ruby announces her engagement, the plot wheels are set in motion. The family will gather at grandmother Ronnie’s Cape Cod house for the wedding, and each person who’ll be there will be bringing secrets that they may or may not want to reveal to others.

The story is told through chapters from the points-of-view of most of the main characters, including not just Sarah, but also Ruby, Gabe, Eli, Ronnie, Sarah’s brother Sam, and more. We don’t know everything right from the start, but as the book progresses, we learn about each character’s past, the decisions that haunt them, the choices they regret, and the secrets and shame that they carry with them.

The plot is not terribly complex — this is a character-driven novel, and I enjoyed getting to know each of these people and their inner lives. We can judge characters’ actions or disagree with their choices, but through the lens of the point-of-view chapters, it’s impossible not to empathize and at least understand the reasons for what they’ve done and what they’ve hidden or given up.

There are perhaps too many coincidences in The Summer Place, which make some of the big reveals feel a bit contrived. How likely is it that these people, whose paths cross accidentally in the story, would have secret connections that go back decades? Not very… but it’s okay. Even if I had to suspend my disbelief in parts, I still really enjoyed how the various story threads were woven together to form a cohesive whole.

In each section of the book, there’s a brief interlude narrated by, of all things, the Cape Cod house itself. I’m not a fan of this kind of anthropomorphism, and thought it was a bit hokey… your mileage may vary. Thankfully, these interludes are short and don’t feel weighty, so they didn’t negatively impact my reading experience as a whole.

The Summer Place exists in the same general world as That Summer, which I absolutely loved. To be clear, The Summer Place is not a sequel and is absolutely a stand-alone… but for those who’ve read That Summer, some familiar names and places will pop out.

The Summer Place is not as emotionally impactful as That Summer, which has much heavier themes and consequences (and which I really loved). Still, I did very much enjoy The Summer Place. The characters are relatable and feel grounded in the world we know.

Families are messy. Family members can be annoying. Lives aren’t always logical, and everyone, no matter how happy or successful, carries regrets and what-ifs and secrets they’d prefer to forget about. As The Summer Place shows, even families with messy and unpredictable connections and weird communication patterns love and need each other, and if that love is strong enough, bad choices and unintended consequences won’t keep a family from coming together and sharing life’s ups and downs.

And oh, the glory of a beach house in summer! Reading this book made me yearn for a slow, unscheduled summer of my own. Beach house, swimming, good food, good books… a relaxed appreciation for life’s simple pleasures. It feels very far away from reality for me… but it’s certainly nice to dream about!

Audiobook Review: That Summer by Jennifer Weiner

Title: That Summer
Author: Jennifer Weiner
Narrator: Sutton Foster
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: May 11, 2021
Print length: 432 pages
Audio length: 13 hours, 21 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Big Summer comes another timely and deliciously twisty novel of intrigue, secrets, and the transformative power of female friendship, set on beautiful Cape Cod.

Daisy Shoemaker can’t sleep. With a thriving cooking business, full schedule of volunteer work, and a beautiful home in the Philadelphia suburbs, she should be content. But her teenage daughter can be a handful; her husband can be distant, her work can feel trivial, and she has lots of acquaintances, but no real friends. Still, Daisy knows she’s got it good. So why is she up all night?

While Daisy tries to identify the root of her dissatisfaction, she’s also receiving misdirected emails meant for a woman named Diana Starling, whose email address is just one punctuation mark away from her own. While Daisy’s driving carpools, Diana is chairing meetings. While Daisy’s making dinner, Diana’s making plans to reorganize corporations. Diana’s glamorous, sophisticated, single-lady life is miles away from Daisy’s simpler existence. When an apology leads to an invitation, the two women meet and become friends. But, as they get closer, we learn that their connection was not completely accidental. Who IS this other woman, and what does she want with Daisy?

From the manicured Main Line of Philadelphia to the wild landscape of the Outer Cape, written with Jennifer Weiner’s signature wit and sharp observations, THAT SUMMER is a story about surviving our pasts, confronting our futures, and the sustaining bonds of friendship.

That Summer is a beautifully crafted story about women’s lives, women’s friendship, raising daughters, and keeping secrets. It’s going to be very hard to talk about without revealing major plot points, so I’m going to go light on content and talk instead about themes and how it made me feel.

First off, though — even though I tend not to include or want to read content warnings, I do think it’s important for readers to know in advance that this book includes sexual assault as a major plotline. While it’s handled sensitively and thoughtfully, please know that if this is a subject you find triggering in fiction, then this isn’t going to be a good reading experience for you.

Onward with That Summer! I won’t go into how or why, but the chance encounter described in the synopsis is much more intentional and meaningful than Daisy knows. As the book unfolds, we learn about Daisy’s early life, her choice to marry very young rather than complete college, and how her life has been shaped by her husband’s decisions. We also get to know Diana very well, and she is not what she seems… but while the initial set-up may seem like the start of a psychological thriller, it’s instead an exploration of the turning points in a young woman’s life and how an entire trajectory can be derailed by moments of tragedy and violation.

Beyond the POV chapters told from Diana and Daisy’s perspectives, there are also chapters where the action is seen through the eyes of Beatrice, Daisy’s 14-year-old daughter. These are fascinating as well, especially as the older women reflect back on their own tumultuous teen years and how those years shaped the women they’d become.

The writing in That Summer is lovely, especially the way the author so skillfully and thoughtfully shows us each main character’s inner world and how they experience the world around them. I loved getting to know both Daisy and Diana — and this is a big achievement, as the initial set-up led me to believe that Diana, clearly hiding something and with a secret agenda, would be a sinister or unlikable character, which is absolutely not the case.

The book is very much informed by the #MeToo movement and the moments of reckoning catching up with perpetrators of sexual assault. It’s fascinating to see the characters’ reactions to the seemingly daily news coverage of one celebrity or public figure after another being exposed for their bad behaviors — including the reactions of male figures in the characters’ lives, which vary from anger to disbelief to internalized guilt.

Sutton Foster is the narrator of That Summer, and I loved listening to her voice the varied characters. The book is a pleasure to listen to, as well as to read.

As I said, I’m going to keep this short because I just don’t want to delve into the plot any further, so I’ll wrap up simply by saying that I found this book moving and important, with a story that feels current and powerful, and character voices that truly shine. Don’t miss it.