Review 1764: Literary Wives! The Summer Wives

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

In the summer of 1951, young Miranda Schuyler arrives on Winthrop Island for her mother’s wedding to Hugh Fisher. There, she is immediately drawn to the young fisherman, Joseph Vargas, one of the lower class full-time population of the island that is in summer also occupied by the wealthy elite. She doesn’t care about his social position, but her new stepsister, Isobel, claims him for her own despite being engaged to someone else.

In the summer of 1930, a very young and naïve Bianca Medeiro falls madly in love with Hugh Fisher. She does not understand how he views their relative social positions and believes that having sex with him means they are spiritually married, despite his engagement to another girl.

In the summer of 1969, Miranda, now a movie star, returns to the island, where she has been a pariah since the events of 1951. Slowly, we learn what happened back then and what led to Joseph’s imprisonment for the murder of Hugh Fisher.

My Review

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First, I have to say that this is absolutely not my kind of book, so I only read it because it was a selection for Literary Wives. I have read one other book by Beatriz Williams, but I’m guessing it was improved by being a collaboration with two other writers, Lauren Willig and Karen White. The Summer Wives is definitely chick lit, which I do not read, so I will attempt to comment on the other aspects of it.

The plot develops so slowly that I considered quitting about page 50, when nothing much had happened except girls swooning over boys. I was about at page 5 when I thought I knew every secret that was going to be revealed, and I was just about right, barring that by then only a few of the characters had appeared. I also expected more of a sense of what the island looked like and who the characters were, but they were very much one- or maybe two-dimensional.

The dialogue was uninteresting, and the writing was either fairly mundane or overstated. For example, Bianca is stunned at being given gin to drink, not surprised, not startled, but stunned.

The novel picked up a little at the end, but had a frankly unbelievable ending. And what is this fascination chick lit books seem to have with wealth? The novels all seem to be about rich people or poor girls brought into worlds of wealth. So, of course, Miranda’s mother marries a wealthy man and despite Miranda having been ostracized from the family at a young age, she doesn’t become just an actress but a movie star.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

Well, really not much. Despite its title, the novel isn’t really about wives so much as a series of illicit relationships and love affairs. In fact, the word “wives” is used ironically, I think. Bianca considers herself married to Hugh despite his engagement to another woman and is shocked when he actually marries her. The marriages that are depicted are all in some sort of dysfunction. Hugh Fisher and Bianca Medeiro marry others but cheat their spouses throughout their marriages. Miranda has just left her abusive husband who, of course, is a movie director. Another middle-aged wife has been seducing the young men on the island. These are not sincere depictions of marriage but stereotypes, and I find nothing much to say about them.

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Review 1360: Abide with Me

Cover for Abide with MeElizabeth Strout is known for her compassionate explorations of true-to-life characters. Set in the late 1950’s, Abide with Me explores the states of mind of Tyler Caskey, a troubled minister, and his congregation.

Tyler is in mourning for his wife, who passed away from cancer. His mother has insisted on caring for his youngest daughter, Jeanne, while his five-year-old daughter, Katherine, lives with him.

Tyler is afraid he has lost his relationship with God. He is performing his duties without joy or inspiration. Katherine is having troubles in Kindergarten, because her teacher can’t understand that she is grieving. Aside from this, Tyler only feels comfortable talking to his housekeeper, Connie, and rumors are beginning to go around.

Misunderstandings divide the minister from his congregation. Strout builds tension as the pressures upon the minister build.

This is another insightful and touching novel by Strout. In some ways, it reminded me of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, except that it doesn’t require as much erudition to understand it.

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Day 652: Amy and Isabelle

Cover for Amy and IsabelleIn 60’s small-town New England, Isabelle Goodrow and her 16-year-old daughter Amy are having a tough summer. They are together all the time because Amy has a job in the mill office where Isabelle has worked for years, but they are presently resentful of each other and barely speak.

Although Amy has been harboring typical teenage feelings toward her mother, their problems go back a lot farther. Some of them have roots in how Isabelle has represented herself in town since she moved there. She has some social ambitions and thinks she is more refined than the other women who work in the office. Quietly in love with her married boss for years, she is concerned about how she and her daughter are perceived. She also has secrets.

But their immediate problems begin earlier that school year, when insecure Amy thinks she is in love.

This is my third Strout novel, and I like how observant she is of life in these small, conservative New England towns. She presents us with situations that are dramatic but common and has us examine the lives of ordinary people. Amy and Isabelle are hard on each other, as mothers and daughters can be, but they are also able to learn from their mistakes, even if the lessons are painful.

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Day 616: The Rathbones

Cover for The RathbonesBest Book of the Week!
The Rathbones is a strange and wonderful novel, part gothic mystery, part magical realism, about a whaling family in the 18th and 19th centuries. Mercy Rathbone is a girl, the last of a mysterious family. She lives in a massive house only partially built that used to house dozens of people. Now only her aloof mother lives there with her and her cousin Mordecai—who stays in the attic and acts as her tutor—and a few servants.

Mercy has vague memories of a brother that her mother and cousin tell her never existed. She has not seen her father for more than ten years, although packages from him occasionally arrive. She is curious about the family portraits in a gallery, all with the names removed. She knows the names of her mother and father but has no idea who her grandparents were, or how they related to Moses, the patriarch of the family.

One night Mercy is attracted by the sound of a boy singing and ventures into a part of the house where she is not allowed, the widow’s walk where  her mother goes every night. There she witnesses her mother being embraced by a strange man, and that man chases her through the house. She finds refuge with Mordecai, and the two decide to go to sea to find her father. They flee in a little dory, pursued by the strange man.

So begins a wonderous adventure, where they encounter an island occupied only by old ladies; an island of rich, eccentric cousins with a massive collection of furniture and art; an island of birds occupied by a woman who only speaks bird language. At each stop Mercy learns more about the odd and sometimes grotesque history of her family, many of whom have a magical affinity for the sea.

I do not usually enjoy magical realism, but with this novel I loved never knowing where the story would go. It is an odd one, certainly, and probably not for everyone, but it is imaginative and unusual.