Honestly, I’d Rather Be Living in an Elin Hilderbrand Novel
Mary Bergman on the Reality Behind the Beachy Book Covers
Nantucket Island was once the whale oil capital of the world. In the first half of the 20th century, writers like Nathaniel Benchley, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck, and the Gilbreth family all found inspiration in summer homes 30 miles out to sea. Today, the island’s primary export is middle- and lower-income families who can no longer afford to live here. Our second greatest export is signed copies of Elin Hilderbrand’s beachy novels: more than 5,000 copies of The Hotel Nantucket were shipped to readers from the island’s independent bookstore, Mitchell’s Book Corner, this past June.
I read my first Elin Hilderbrand novel on a cold January day two years ago. It was 28 Summers, Hilderbrand’s take on the 1978 film Same Time Next Year, in which a city-dwelling man and a woman who lives in a simple beach cottage on Nantucket begin a torrid love affair that lasts for—you guessed it—28 summers.
Up until that point, most of my reading about the island I’ve called home for eight years was confined to the classics. My idea of a good time was going to a Moby-Dick marathon at the Whaling Museum, staying up late into the night listening to community members read aloud from Melville’s masterpiece under a whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling.
If you’ve only seen Elin Hilderbrand’s novels staring back at you from an airport kiosk, they are stories of women who rediscover themselves, usually over the course of one fateful summer on Nantucket, often in a house overlooking the sea. That is not my Nantucket. I live in one of the island’s few affordable housing subdivisions, in a house I won in a lottery held in a middle school cafeteria. My lawn is forever dead, despite prodding from neighborhood dads. I’ve spent time in homes any coastal grandmother would drool over, but as a dog sitter or while working estate sales.
Perhaps it was the pandemic-induced isolation coupled with the sun setting at four in the afternoon. Whatever it was, I’d finally been bucked off my literary high horse, and I checked out one Hilderbrand novel after another from the island’s library. Before the month was out, I’d read The Perfect Couple, then Summer of ’69, Barefoot, The Matchmaker, Here’s to Us, and Beautiful Day. (I’ve since read all 21 of Hilderbrand’s summer novels.) Nor’easters pounded the island; waves broke at the feet of quaint beach cottages. I was daydreaming of oysters at Cru and dinner at the Blue Bistro, places real and imagined. Stranded on a wintry island, at least I could escape into an endless summer. I could visit a world I had seen in glimpses through breaks in the hedges of sprawling summer compounds.
Hilderbrand’s Nantucket is a fully realized world. The stories are fiction, but the names (of streets, businesses, and other landmarks) remain exactly as they are on a map of the island. There are other novels set on islands that might as well be Nantucket, like the shark-infested Amity Island of Peter Benchley’s Jaws, Packet Island of Herman Rauscher’s Summer of ’42, and the WASP-y Waskeke Island of Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements. All these writers spent time on Nantucket, but Hilderbrand, who lives year-round on the island, engages in no such subterfuge.
This hyperrealism allows readers to experience—or try to experience—the novel-as-Nantucket. Each January, The Nantucket Hotel holds “Elin Hilderbrand’s Bucket List Weekend,” where readers can take a guided tour of the Nantucket as it appears in Hilderbrand’s books. There are trivia contests, dance parties, and even a reading from Elin’s forthcoming book. Rooms at the hotel go for around $400 a night over this special weekend. Were these readers to arrive in August, the nightly rate for the smallest room is more than $1,000.
Next year marks the seventh Bucket List Weekend. (Elin has been nominated for the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce’s 2022 Tourism Advocate of the Year award to recognize her part in increased visitation to the island.) This event, and any event Hilderbrand has on Nantucket, attracts people from across the country to this sandy spit, even in January. Why? A bumper sticker sold at Mitchell’s Book Corner puts it succinctly: I’d Rather Be Living in an Elin Hilderbrand Novel.
There is a long tradition of writers, mostly men, following in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau. In my life on Nantucket, what would it look like to walk in the sandals of Hilderbrand’s characters? It would be difficult to get a reservation at any of the restaurants that appear in these novels—a few have sold or closed, sales spurred by a ceaseless real estate market and a serious labor shortage. (I did, once, earn $35 waiting in line during the pouring rain at a sushi restaurant mentioned in Elin’s books to make a reservation for a man who used to hire locals to stand in line. I sat on the granite curb and shared the shelter of my rainbow beach umbrella with a woman from Greenwich. “You never read about this in any of Elin’s novels,” she muttered.)
A Hilderbrand fantasy weekend on Nantucket meant skipping out on my chores in exchange for a long day at the beach. No trip to the dump, the island’s biggest social hub—most of the characters in Hilderbrand’s novels do not haul their own rubbish. (Frank Conroy, longtime director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, where Hilderbrand studied, met his wife while she was hitchhiking to the Nantucket dump. He wrote about the island in Time and Tide, a slim volume that is part memoir, part travel guide.)In my life on Nantucket, what would it look like to walk in the sandals of Hilderbrand’s characters?
If you’ve never read one of Hilderbrand’s novels, you might be surprised to learn that many of the characters are not on vacation. The Blue Bistro, arguably Hilderbrand’s best, follows Adrienne, a young woman who arrives on the island in search of a job. She wakes up at the Star of the Sea Youth Hostel after paying seven dollars to crash there, and is hired as the assistant manager at the titular (fictional) Blue Bistro, despite having no restaurant experience.
“You’re going to be making more money than you know what to do with,” her coworker says, when Adrienne balks at the price of a dress in Gypsy, one of the island’s real-life pricey boutiques.
The Blue Bistro came out more than 15 years ago. Much of this fantasy still rings true—a young person can come to Nantucket, work in the restaurant industry, and make an insane amount of money in a single high season. This summer, the island’s storefronts are speckled with help wanted signs. But were Adrienne to arrive on Nantucket today, there would be no youth hostel for her to rest her head. Hosteling International sold the Star of the Sea, the last hostel on the island, to Blue Flag Partners in 2020 for $3.4 million. Laws prohibit sleeping on the beach, and there are no campgrounds on Nantucket. (Gypsy still does a brisk business.)
In The Hotel Nantucket, Hilderbrand’s most recent novel, a night watchman is discovered to be living in his car. Meanwhile, a scrappy front desk clerk allows herself to be wooed by a wealthy (and married) man with a fabulous waterfront home on Hulbert Avenue, a street that practically shoulders Nantucket’s property tax burden. She lives there until she finds housing with a coworker.
There are plenty of characters who are financially secure and live in fabulous summer homes that are empty ten months of the year. Visitors often ask me what it’s like living here, if Hilderbrand’s novels are indicative of the real Nantucket. There is no singular Nantucket. This is a place that is constantly shifting, a place where shipwrecks are revealed at low tide and no secret stays buried for long.
Hilderbrand’s Nantucket is mostly—but not entirely—white. The reality of the island is different, with 11 languages spoken by students in Nantucket Public Schools. Nantucket’s Black history is integral to the story of the island—Skip Finley’s Whaling Captains of Color is a fantastic primer on the topic, as is Frances Karttunen’s The Other Islanders. To summer visitors, the diversity of the island is perhaps only experienced when they are being served by the host of Black and brown people who keep the island functioning summer after summer. National Book Award winner Tiya Miles touched on this phenomenon in The Atlantic with her aptly titled essay “Nantucket Doesn’t Belong to the Preppies.” As one Black character in Hilderbrand’s Summer People puts it, to look at out the streets, restaurants, and beaches of Nantucket is to see “[w]hite people everywhere all excited about summer.”
Given the breadth of other books set on Nantucket, what is it about Hilderbrand’s novels that has made her the major chronicler of summer life on the island? I used to think these were just novels about rich people behaving badly. Juicy stories abound, but Elin has also pulled back the curtain on Nantucket, giving her readers a glossary of the faraway island. When they arrive, they speak the language. They know where the Yacht Club is and when to catch the Opera House Cup wooden sailboat race.
As the wealth gap in this country increases, what is the staying power of books where lifestyles are unattainable, even to those of us who live on said island? Escapism isn’t going anywhere, history tells us. Look no further than what was popular during the Great Depression: glitzy musical spectaculars dominated the screen, like Top Hat, Gold Diggers of ’33, and Shall We Dance. People were desperate to be transported to a world that glittered, rather than the one they were struggling through.
During my pandemic beach-read binge, one thought I returned to time and time again was going to the Galley Beach restaurant, a Nantucket landmark that began its life as a clam shack and appears in Hilderbrand’s work as the aforementioned Blue Bistro. Open only in season, the chic establishment is tucked into a silver shingled bungalow that is often swallowed up by drifts of sand come winter. The restaurant fronts onto the Nantucket Sound, nestled inside the Cliffside Beach Club. It’s the only quarter-mile stretch of private beach on the island. The remaining 80 miles of coastline are accessible to the public, though with no affordable lodging, the unspoken question is: who is this all for? A six-foot-high spite fence separates Cliffside from a narrow strip of public beach. I couldn’t get a reservation at the Blue Bistro (I mean the Galley) or even walk across Cliffside’s pristine beach, but I could swim in front of it.
This summer was the hottest any of us can remember it. The hum of air conditioners has replaced the roar of the waves. The only place the heat relents, even a little, is the sea. I walk down from the car wearing just a bathing suit, the sort of thing you can get away with in a summer town. On the other side of the fence are people who use summer as a verb. They’ve wandered out in Top Siders and blue blazers, in slinky dresses, blonde waves cascading across their shoulders. They raise their cameras westward. They have waited for this moment, their two weeks in paradise, toes in the sand, espadrilles tucked under tables.
The water is warm, moon jellies bump against my fingertips. Without my glasses, I can only make out the suggestion of these people on the other side, gauzy dresses billowing in the wind, bodies tilted toward the setting sun. A man raises a champagne flute, the orange sky reflected in the bubbles. Another applauds, as though this performance had been orchestrated just for them. And me, floating unseen in the blue-black sea.
In the winter, when they’re gone, I will walk along this beach like I own the place. My footprints will stay there until the next great storm.