Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selective Readings
July 19, 2018
“The Summer Wives”
“I’d forgotten about the scent of the sound, which had its own
particular tang, different from anywhere else in the world…”
The Summer Wives
At an early age Beatriz was taken to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland by her parents. Most of her books contain fragments from those experiences.The Summer Wivescertainly does. Miranda, the main character who falls in love with a sailing-loving local, is drawn from her namesake in The Tempest. In Shakespeare’s play, Miranda is the daughter of Prospero. She is a compassionate young woman who lives on an island and who falls in love with a shipwrecked sailor, Ferdinand:
“How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!
O, Brave new world, that has such people in’t.”
As in all Beatriz’s novels, we travel between different time periods. In this case, most of the story takes place in the two years, 1951 and 1969, though we spend a few pages in 1930, when the story’s seeds – a double entendre, in the case of this book – are planted. We know there is a mystery; but it is unraveled slowly, allowing the reader to gradually realize its myriad tentacles. There is poignancy and happiness, love and hatred, envy and redemption.
Toward the end of Beatriz’s novel, Miranda – now a stage and film star and no longer the naïf she was in 1951 – directs a play – Act One of The Tempest. The venue is set on a beach to celebrate the end of summer. An artist friend of her mother’s, Brigette, has been asked to play the slave Caliban. Brigette insists on playing the part her way, linking the role to the relationship between summer people and year-rounders. So, she tells Miranda how she sees Caliban: “He’s their slave…They have invaded his world, his island and now they rule him…This is their greatest fear, you know, that the savage will impregnate the gentile.” The present is thus embedded in the past.
We also get exposure to Troilus and Cressidaand Richard II. In the latter she quotes John of Gaunt in one of his most memorable (and one of my favorite) soliloquies: “…this little world, this precious stone set in a silvery sea, which… serves as a moat, defensive to a house against the envy of less happier lands…This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” It is the way many of her characters, from both ends of the social scale, feel about their island.
The story takes place on a fictionalized version of Fisher’s Island, which is off the east end of Long Island and a forty-five-minute ferry ride from New London, Connecticut. Beatriz was intrigued by a place not well known to most Americans, but one to which summer residents have returned for generations. She was interested in the contacts and interdependency between those who live on the island year-round and those for whom the island is a summer interlude from homes on Park Avenue and Beacon Hill. Bianca, one of the natives, speaks to this relationship, in 1930: “You and your damned Families. You can afford anything, can’t you? One wife for the summer, and another wife for the rest of the year. My God, I am an idiot.” Relationships assume complexities and consequences, which Beatriz explores.
With all that happens to Miranda over the years, it would be understandable should she have become cynical, but she doesn’t. She retains some of the characteristics of her name sake, and we are left hanging, not knowing what the future might entail, but we respect her. We leave her outside Greyfriars in 1970, a year after the story ends, looking toward the lighthouse (which plays a prominent role). She is watching the sails of boats populating the waters, when one catches her attention: “An ordinary sailboat, carrying an ordinary man, beating his way past the edge of Fleet Rock and up the treacherous channel toward me.” That is her last sentence, leaving the reader hungry for more. Like Trollope, Beatriz’s characters do not remain between the pages of a single book. Minor characters in one novel take on bigger roles in another. I hope, and I suspect, we have not heard the last of Miranda and Joseph.
In the meantime, enjoy this erudite and readable novel. Not only will you be entertained; you will be challenged.