Review: “The Hotel Nantucket” by Elin Hilderbrand and “The Summer Place” by Jennifer Weiner – The New York Times
Elin Hilderbrand and Jennifer Weiner deliver their annual installments of salty air, summer love and personal entanglements.
THE HOTEL NANTUCKET, By Elin Hilderbrand
THE SUMMER PLACE, By Jennifer Weiner
The term “beach read” may be evolving from pejorative to praise, as at least some people become less fusty about the value of popular fiction. To me, beach reads are books to linger over on a lounge chair, to lose yourself in while the real (and lately cruel) world slips away. Anything can be a beach read if it truly holds you in its clutches: Amor Towles’s “ Rules of Civility ” was one of the most achingly addictive books I happened to read on a blissful trip to St . Lucia; once, a dear family friend brought a fat history of longitude to the seaside — his idea of gripping material.
“The Hotel Nantucket, ” simply by Elin Hilderbrand, and Jennifer Weiner’s “The Summer Place” try mightily to be beach reads — and, given the authors’ well-earned followings, both are likely to be successful as such. There are blue covers with female silhouettes in repose; summery settings (a wedding on Cape Cod and a buzzy new hotel); sprawling casts of Clue-game characters and myriad mini-mysteries. Both go down with the ease of a Dirty Shirley , but neither captured my heart or attained that overused marketing promise of “unputdownability. ”
“The Hotel Nantucket” opens with a crush associated with insider-y chatter: “Blond Sharon, ” a “turbo engine” of gossip, spilling that Lizbet Keaton, an Everywoman who co-ran the popular restaurant The Deck and invented its famed rosé fountain, had discovered “187 sexually explicit texts” from her longtime boyfriend and the restaurant’s chef, JJ O’Malley, to their wine rep, Christina Cross. The scandal sparks Lizbet’s departure to manage the revival of the “once-grand” Hotel Nantucket, which has fallen into disrepair. As a travelogue, the novel is exquisite, transporting a person “on island, ” as ACK lingo goes. Hilderbrand revels in the granular details of the Matouk-sheet-swathed lodging, which boasts showers thoughtfully tiled in oyster shells and complimentary minibars stuffed with bluefish pâté. The author sets sumptuous scenes — a retro cottage with “frilled toothpicks purchased some time during the Kennedy administration”; a bougie meal of “milk-braised pork along with hand-rolled gnocchi in sage and butter. ” I only wished for the same richness in the characters and their stories.
Hilderbrand’s spiky, astute observations — a description of a shifty front-desk manager, Alessandra Powell, as “a broken doll, a smashed mirror”; a lament that will JJ’s “memory is his superpower and it always made Lizbet feel like he has been paying attention” — are too fleeting. There is a plucky 8-year-old sleuth, Wanda Marsh, who tries to solve the mystery of the hotel ghost, the chambermaid named Grace Hadley, but the book is short on Wanda’s precocious dialogue. (I had my initial doubts about Grace, but she is largely charming within her supernatural ability to sniff out guests’ “rotten” souls. ) Others feel thinner, like the hotel’s owner, Xavier Darling, an enigmatic billionaire who, implausibly, has the time and will to send cloying, weekly “Hey, ladies! ”-style emails to staff members.
High stakes are heaped upon their secrets: Alessandra is “beautiful enough to get away with murder. ” Chadwick Winslow, a fratty, moneyed son of Nantucket who joins the housekeeping staff, teases a terrible sin he committed for almost the entire 416 pages. Chad has to “do penance, ” Hilderbrand unsubtly explains. “That’s what this job is all about — it’s an atonement. ” But their truths, once revealed, don’t deliver on the hype.
Stylistically, Hilderbrand and, at times, Weiner overdo it on distracting, dated internet-y slang (“#relationshipgoals, ” “bruh, ” “smoke-show”) that barely survived a few quick digital eras, much less the glacial pace associated with publishing. By summer 2022, the Gael Greene-esque travel Instagrammer whose five-key rating is so coveted by the Hotel Nantucket would probably be on TikTok. (Readers trying to keep up with their own kids’ language might empathize. ) “Gooiest marshmallow dreams, ” Hilderbrand’s description of the hotel s’more kits, could also apply to the sex scenes between Lizbet plus her new love interest, a chef named Mario Subiaco, who may or may not realize he’s speaking to her in Joe Cocker lyrics (“You are so beautiful to me”). Hilderbrand describes their “lovemaking” as a “storm, ” but beyond proximity and mutual cuteness, I’m not sure why, exactly, these two fall for each other.
I’m more than happy to suspend disbelief — the last great book I read had been Rachel Yoder’s “ Nightbitch , ” about a stifled mother who believes she’s morphing into a feral she-wolf. That premise was more convincing to me than much of the plot in Weiner’s “The Summer Place, ” a family saga hinging on more than one 23andMe test result. I struggled to buy that Eli Danhauser, the kindly periodontist, would immediately recognize — on sight and out of context — the son of a woman he slept with 20 years ago. Ditto for the fact that said son, Gabriel Andrews, who grew up across the country, just so happens to be dating Eli’s daughter, Ruby. (Even Weiner acknowledges the improbability of this “one in a billion” entanglement. )
Though a wedding is handy for the plot, it seems anachronistic that Ruby, an ambitious, Brooklyn-bred N. Y. U. student, would spontaneously decide she wants to marry Gabe right after graduation, a decision she doubts just as quickly. Still more people fall in undying love for indiscernible reasons; at one point, two figures barely exchange words at a club, hook up and subsequently wake up soul mates. Most compelling is the matriarch Veronica Levy, a formerly famous author whose books are made into movies (evoking Weiner’s “ In Her Shoes ”). But would Ronnie really have said goodbye to all that because an indiscretion from her past made the New York lit world feel icky?
Weiner scratches at class and identity tensions through Ronnie: Her new-money summer place on Cape Cod clashes with those of the entitled “Pond People” who try to lay claim to her swimming spot — even if, as Weiner writes in a sentiment We underlined, “people on the Cape could own land right up to the shoreline” but “they could not own the water, either salt or brackish or even fresh. ”
Once upon a time, “the entire Cape was theirs, ” Weiner writes; Jewish people were all but barred from buying homes in certain neighborhoods. I adored the indignation with which Ronnie muses, “Maybe they still wish the whole world belonged to them alone. ” Weiner’s take on the Pond People’s shoddy entertaining rings all too true: “They had barrels of booze and no food. Nothing to eat except a sleeve of Ritz crackers and supermarket Cheddar. ” This conflict left me longing for more; the particular flimsy teen romance between Ronnie’s daughter, Sarah, along with a Pond boy, Owen Lassiter, doesn’t do it justice.
“The Summer Place” meditates on mothers plus daughters. Sarah harbors a petulant grudge against Ronnie for the sin of working too much; Ronnie can’t understand Sarah’s modern-day overscheduling of her boys, why the girl can’t let them run wild and free on the Shawl. Their secrets and similarities seep out.
The most elusive of these mothers is Eli’s first wife, Annette, who chose the girl freedom over him and their baby, Ruby, long ago. “The world made space for men who left; walked away from wives and children sometimes more than once, ” Weiner writes. “Women were not offered any such grace. ”
Annette never wanted motherhood. She went through with it for Eli’s sake, a good act that imploded upon all three of them. Looking back, Annette remembers that will “she’d gazed down in Ruby’s tiny face. She’d touched the downy curve of her skull along with one fingertip. And she’d felt nothing. ” That’s the sort of biting, delicious, terribly human revelation that makes a beach read.
Michelle Ruiz is a contributing editor at Vogue.
THE RESORT NANTUCKET, by Elin Hilderbrand | 416 pp. | Little, Brown & Company | $29
THE SUMMER PLACE, by Jennifer Weiner | 432 pp. | Atria Books | $28. 99