THE BEACH AT SUMMERLY, by Beatriz Williams
There are moments when busy bibliophiles on holiday want to use precious downtime to bury their Coppertoned noses in a novel designed to be read poolside. These books might conjure memories of summers past: romances that flourished under the hot sun but cooled with autumn’s onset, a state of innocence that didn’t yet connect recklessness with consequences, the bittersweet awareness that summer invariably passes in the flash of a lightning bug.
There are few more skilled practitioners of the craft of summer fiction than Beatriz Williams. Her latest is both a spy thriller and a Romeo and Juliet tale of would-be lovers torn apart by fate and circumstance. Set primarily on an island off New England in the decade following World War II (Williams alternates between 1946 and 1954), the story centers on Emilia “Cricket” Winthrop, whose family first laid claim to the island that now bears their name.
But that fact is deceptive: Emilia’s family occupies the caretaker’s cottage, from which her father tends their landlord’s estate. His employers are the Peabodys, one of the wealthy Boston clans that throng to Winthrop Island each year from Memorial Day on. As children, Emilia and her brother, Eli, pass the time from June through August cavorting in the waves with the Peabody boys — Arthur, Amory and Shep — oblivious to the upstairs/downstairs nature of their families’ relationship. Make no mistake, though: Their respective parents are keenly aware of their class disparities.
When the novel opens, the war has ended — along with all possibility of blissful ignorance. Arthur and Eli are dead; Emilia’s mother is incapacitated by shock. The remaining Peabodys return to Winthrop for the first time since the fighting stopped, ready to rekindle, regroup and throw parties that rival those of before times. Emilia and Shep have stayed in touch via letters over the years, and now their friendship grows into something more. But the arrival from England of the captivating and somewhat mysterious Peabody relative Olive Rainsford bodes trouble for all. Emilia becomes entangled in Olive’s web of intrigue, unspooling events that will have tragic implications for both families — and reverberations well beyond the island. Without giving too much away, let’s just say the outcome will also shatter Emilia’s hopes, and force her to build an independent life and career on the mainland.
“The Beach at Summerly” is enriched by fascinating historical details and an espionage theme; in an author’s note, Williams explains that it was inspired by actual episodes from the Cold War era. Real-life figures such as the former C.I.A. director Allen Dulles make an appearance. Yet in some ways those elements are MacGuffins. They introduce tension that keeps the plot crackling, but don’t provide the novel’s heat.
Williams has crafted a layered narrative celebrating a heroine who embodies verve, pluck and courage. Ultimately “The Beach at Summerly” is an ode to a season and a feeling. If our summers past represent a paradise lost, as selves that once were, or might have been, then in Williams’s pages we may briefly recapture the delicious freedom we used to feel when the days became longer and warmer, and we were young and in love.
Leigh Haber was the director of Oprah’s Book Club from 2012 to 2022 and books editor for O, the Oprah Magazine. She is currently a freelance writer, editor and publishing strategist.
THE BEACH AT SUMMERLY | By Beatriz Williams | 368 pp. | William Morrow | $30