*This review originally appeared in the Historical Novels Review and can be found online here.
The Book of Summer
Physician Bess Codman returns to Cliff House, her family’s summer home in Sconset, on Nantucket. The house rests on a bluff that is rapidly crumbling after Hurricane Sandy and decades of beach erosion. Bess’s mother, Cissy, is a full-time resident and neighborhood activist who insists that the installation of geotubes will stabilize the bluff and save the historic home. Bess returns to the island in the middle of a divorce, running from an abusive marriage and hoping to persuade her mother to move before the house collapses around her. As Bess begins to pack, she rediscovers the “Book of Summer,” the journal in which generations of women in her family would record their time on the island. It’s in this journal that Bess learns more about her grandmother Ruby and the events the house has witnessed over the generations.
The premise—three generations of women and how their summer home has been an anchor in their lives—has enormous potential, but a plot to match that setting never emerges. The story feels far more soap opera than family saga. Chaos abounds: an unwanted pregnancy, unhappy marriages, abuse, scandal, alcoholism, adultery, miscarriages, war deaths, etc. A few of these challenges could be used to show character growth or historical insights over the story arc, but readers never learn how Bess, Cissy, and Ruby grow from these obstacles. A laundry list of crises does not provide the emotional depth one would expect from a family saga, and the fight to save the house feels like an afterthought. A story about a family of strong females should be much more about the women.