What do you look for in your summer reading? Terms like “beach read” tend to connote light, frothy stories—especially from genres like romance, mystery, and chick lit—but for me a summer read is any book that happens to be totally absorbing, whatever its length. These two novels I recently read are perfect for the summer because you can sink right into them. Whether a trio of widows in postwar Germany or a dysfunctional family in modern-day New York City, the characters and setting come fully to life and tempt you to settle in on a sofa or a beach towel and stay for a while.
The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
Like Virginia Baily’s Early One Morning and Caroline Lea’s When the Sky Fell Apart, this is a female-centered World War II story that focuses on a lesser-known aspect of history. The main characters are three German women, Marianne, Benita and Ania, who were aligned with different sides in the Nazism vs. Resistance conflict but have all suffered grave losses. These widows band together to raise their children at Burg von Lingenfels, the dilapidated ancestral castle of Marianne’s late husband’s family, but as the years pass regrets and unburied secrets start to come between them.
Apart from a short prologue from 1938 and a final section that jumps ahead to 1991, the novel is mainly set in 1945–50. I appreciated the look at postwar Germany, a period you rarely encounter in fiction. Refugees, rape victims, and Russian soldiers are everywhere, while American propaganda heaps shame on Germans for supporting Hitler. As with Barbara Yelin’s Irmina, though, there’s an acknowledgment here that it was never a clear-cut matter of pure evil or utter ignorance; “They had known but not known,” is how Shattuck puts it.
What is most intriguing to watch are the shifting relationships between the three main characters. Marianne, as the widow of one of the conspirators in the plot to assassinate Hitler, feels a compulsion to rescue her fellow widows from work camps and to keep the history of the Resistance alive. When her friends disappoint her—Benita falls in love with a former Nazi officer; Ania admits to a past she’d rather forget—Marianne doesn’t know how to absorb the shocks without judgment. A black-and-white thinker, she has trouble seeing life’s gray areas. Only in her old age is she finally able to realize that people are not simply “good or bad, true or false. They have been laid bare, a collection of choices and circumstances.”
You might think that all the WWII stories have been told by now, yet this novel feels fresh and revelatory. I found it both melancholy and hopeful, with strong characters and a haunting atmosphere:
The next week, a heatwave settled over Burg Lingenfels, a shaggy animal brushing against the hills, panting along the river, quieting the birds and making the castle sweat. The ditches were alive with milkweed, nettles, and creeping phlox. In the warmth, the forest looked soft and dense, a black lump against blue sky.
The Women of the Castle was released in the UK by Zaffre, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing, on May 18th. My thanks to Imogen Sebba for the free copy for review.
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Leo Plumb has really blown it this time. He’s had problems with drugs and womanizing before, but this time he got behind the wheel of a car after his cousin’s wedding reception with coke and alcohol in his system and a nineteen-year-old waitress, Matilda Rodriguez, at his side. Matilda is injured in the ensuing accident, and after her hefty payout it looks like the four Plumb siblings’ collective trust fund, “the nest,” will be severely diminished.
They’re all counting on this money: Melody to send her twin daughters to a good college; Jack to save his floundering antiques business; and Bea to keep her afloat until she can write a long-delayed novel to follow up on the success of her “Archie” short stories (based on a figure suspiciously similar to Leo).
The short chapters switch between the siblings as they tweak their plans for the future. The novel also spends time with Melody’s twins, Nora and Louise, who at 16 are just figuring out what they want from their lives; and with Matilda and her new friend Vinnie as they cope with permanent injuries. All of these characters feel like real people who might be in your neighborhood or your extended family. I especially liked Stephanie, the old girlfriend Leo returns to after his wife finally kicks him out.
In places this reminded me of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, Delia Ephron’s Siracusa, and especially Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love due to a subplot about a stolen sculpture. There’s a rather silly set piece involving the sculpture later on; leaving that aside, I thought this was a compelling story about what happens when the truth comes out and we must readjust our expectations. Realistic rather than rosy, this is a novel about letting go. A nest is, of course, also a home, so for as much as this seems to be about money, it is really more about family and how we reclaim our notion of home after a major upheaval.
The Nest was released in paperback in the UK by The Borough Press on June 1st. My thanks to Emilie Chambeyron for the free copy for review.
“Perhaps, Claudine thought, warmth and kindness didn’t have a country or a language.”
Caroline Lea’s strong debut novel is set on Jersey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France, in the years of German occupation surrounding the Second World War. Although it’s told in a shifting, close third person, the book opens with and keeps returning to the perspective of ten-year-old Claudine Duret. It’s through her eyes that we view the striking first scene, which takes place in June 1940:
When he was on fire, the man smelt bitter. … Even after they had tipped buckets of sea water over him, he still smelt. But sweeter. It reminded her of Maman’s Sunday lunch: roast pork with blackened skin and the cooked fat seeping out through the cracks. Claudine’s mouth watered.
It’s appropriate that Claudine thinks of meat, for the man on fire is Clement Hacquoil, the local butcher. He is the island’s first war injury, the victim of a bombing raid on the St. Helier harbor. As people come together to help him, we meet some of the terrific supporting characters, including Dr. Tim Carter, an Englishman who fears he’ll never fit into this insular community; and Edith Bisson, Claudine’s former babysitter, who concocts herbal remedies.
Two weeks previously there was a call to evacuate and roughly half the island’s population fled – “Like rats … buggering off at the first sign of trouble,” as one old clinger-on taunted. Those who remain are stubborn or without the resources to leave, like Maurice, a former fisherman and now full-time caregiver for his wife Marthe, who has Huntington’s disease. Dr. Carter is determined to stay even after a German commandant and his troops take over the hospital. Claudine, left to her own devices during her mother’s black moods, makes friends with a German soldier, Gregor, but has unpleasant encounters with other soldiers.
A couple things precipitate the book’s crisis: Marthe’s condition is deteriorating but Dr. Carter thinks treatments available in London could help her; and Gregor is in hiding because the Commandant wants to send him to a work camp. Maurice has the idea of escaping to London with Marthe on his fishing boat, and Gregor, Claudine and Edith plan to go along.
I found the trip preparations a bit belabored, such that the whole novel might be improved by a cut of 60–80 pages. I also wondered whether the contrast between Gregor and Hans, the two main German soldiers we meet, was too stark and stereotyping. However, I loved the book’s distinctive characters, the inconclusive ending I didn’t expect, the snippets of foreign languages (not just German and French, but also Jèrriais) and Lea’s atmospheric descriptions of Jersey. She was born and raised on the island, and in passages like this you can sense her fondness for its landscape:
The island was like a beautiful jewel: formed by years of pressure and compression, shaped by the elements and then constrained and combed and ordered by the metallic tools of man. … To the east, picture-perfect houses, like clutches of crafted eggs, nestling by the golden beaches. To the west, the vast mudflats where children could pour salt into a hole in the mud and razorfish might pop out like a conjuror’s trick. The steady breaking and wombing of the sea, metronomic measure of seeping time.
I would not hesitate to recommend this to book clubs (see the reader questions here, but beware spoilers!) and to fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Esther Freud’s Mr. Mac and Me. I look forward to reading what Caroline Lea writes next.
Note: When the Sky Fell Apart was published by Text Publishing in the U.K. and Australia on February 25th. It is currently available in the U.S. as a Kindle book; a paperback release is scheduled for November.
My thanks go to Caroline Lea for the free signed copy, won through a Twitter giveaway.