Harrison’s debut explores class privilege and true love in 1938 Montauk.
When financier Carl Fisher, who made and lost a fortune developing Miami Beach, took an ill-advised gamble on the rockbound sand spits of Montauk, Long Island, he paved the way for future development—and this novel. Harrison’s protagonist, Beatrice, and her banker husband, Harry, check into Montauk Manor—the luxury resort built by Fisher, which still stands today—with plans that she will summer there while he works in the city. Locals from Montauk’s seaside fishing village comprise the servant underclass at the manor, among them Elizabeth, who collects the guests’ laundry to wash in her humble cottage. Bored with the manor’s indolent coterie of wealthy wives, Beatrice, whose own background is middle-class, befriends Elizabeth. Although ostensibly sharing Beatrice’s longing for a child, Harry has been neglecting his husbandly duties, because, as Beatrice learns, his business in the city is monkey business. But Harry’s protracted absences permit Beatrice to pursue an affair with her true soul mate, lighthouse keeper Thomas. The dialogue is exposition-heavy, and the characterizations seem rote, as does the plot. For example, Beatrice’s only ally at the manor, Dolly, seems drawn from the Rosalind Russell character in the movie The Women, complete with flamboyant hats. Dutiful but brief attention is paid to American isolationism and FDR’s reluctance, then, to engage Hitler. The destabilizing force of gentrification is decried at times, but through Beatrice, Harrison concedes that “Fisher had developed Montauk without ruining its beauty.” Beatrice, writing anonymously for a Manhattan paper, exposes the foibles of the moneyed but mindless summer people, including their habit of sending soiled diapers home through the mail, overburdening the local post office. Harrison fails to mine the rich vein of conflict that a mole in the manor’s midst might have generated. The novel’s central question is typical of movies of that era: Is it better to have true love but no money? Or loveless riches? It is a controversy (among many others) that this book handily dodges.
An underdeveloped fictional landscape.