For several years now, my summer-reading dreams have been all about big families misunderstanding each other near the cold waters of New England. It began with a book cover. I know you’re not supposed to judge, but what could be more alluring than a picture of a woman lying on a beach, like the one on J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine? (That long expanse of sand doesn’t look like New England, but that’s another story.) And the cover didn’t mislead me: I loved reading about the Kelleher family, three generations of sublimely difficult women spending the summer at their longtime beach retreat—which the matriarch, Alice, is planning to donate to the local church, unbeknownst to anyone. Her late husband won the place on a bet in 1945, after all, and she’ll do what she likes with it, no matter what anyone else has planned.
Maine was published in 2011. Maggie Shipstead’s slyly funny Seating Arrangements fit the bill perfectly in 2012: The uber-WASPy Van Meter clan spends a long weekend at their summer house on an island off Cape Cod; daughter Daphne is getting married, and she’s—oops—seven months pregnant. Complexities ensue.
This summer I was glad to find Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s Bittersweet, in which Mabel, a scholarship girl, is invited to spend the summer with her capricious roommate, Genevra, whose father is prone to saying things like, “It has been the Winslow tradition….” “Bittersweet” is the name of the family compound, and it’s a fitting one for that mysterious place, though certainly not for the experience of reading about it.
Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor at Kirkus Reviews.