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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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If you are lucky enough to grow up a short ride away from the ocean, childhood summers mean trips to the beach. Though my family was never anywhere beach house- or cottage- adjacent, we had our ways—leaving at the crack of dawn, heading back by early afternoon—to get to the ocean for day trips, avoiding day-sucking traffic, pulling it all off in a neat two hours.
Now, in these grown-up days of work and toil, summer doesn’t have much significance on my calendar. It just means that it will be hotter outside as I work, the promise of the beach, of lazy days doing nothing, mostly receding into the past. There is one change, though, that I now associate with the season: the days get longer, the temperature rises, and my reading habits shift. As summer hits its full stride, there’s one book I want to read: the beach house novel.
To be honest, in this context, the “beach house” novel might just mean “women’s novels” (or chick lit, or women’s commercial fiction). Whatever the term, these stories of women’s lives have a variety of commonalities: they’re often told over a compressed period of time, be it the summer that changed everything or the perfect vacation or someone’s magical wedding, all in a beautiful setting away from the tedium of everyday life; and they’re concerned with relationships, what it means to love somebody, to be loved, to be worthy of that love. I’ve had summer flings with writers like Elin Hildebrand, Jennifer Weiner, and Emma Straub. I’ve been spooked to death by J. Courtney Sullivan’s uncanny evocations of a very specific Irish Catholic south-of-Boston milieu in books like Maine and The Engagements.
But when it comes to writers I love to read in the summertime, Laura Dave surpasses all others. Reading Dave—the author of four novels, including the recent Eight Hundred Grapes—is like experiencing the sea-salty edge of a Nicole Holofcener movie that you’ve never seen, with set decoration by Nancy Meyer. Her stories are generally about turning points in the lives of women who seem to have it all—a looming marriage, the chance for true love, or simply that moment when they face their choices and examine what brought them to this man, this romance, this life.
Dave’s books have recurring themes (attractive male chefs, luscious descriptions of food, dissection of marriage from beginning to end, fretting heroines with fantasy jobs involving travel), but her grace as a writer insures that nothing ever seems formulaic—there’s something deeper in her work that lingers after the initial read.
Her 2006 debut, London Is the Best City in America, pulls its worried heroine, Emmy Everett, out of stasis on the coast of Rhode Island (and the ongoing futility of her documentary about the lives of fishermen’s wives) and into the whirlwind of her brother Josh’s wedding weekend in New York. And throughout it all, Dave is asking the fundamental questions of existence: how do we make decisions? How do we live the life we want? How do we become the best possible version of ourselves? She writes the central characters in this book, Emmy and her older brother (who she worships) with a sharp and sensitive eye. Josh has been living a double life, and there’s a stark difference between the Josh he is in his New York and the Josh he is in Rhode Island, the latter version seeming like the true Josh, “so certain, ready.” There’s something that remains very current, wise, about this debut a decade ago, as millennials continue to struggle with the choices life hurls at them: who to be, how to find happiness, how to stand still.
The Divorce Party, Dave’s second and strongest novel, is a sprawling weekend-in-the-life of Maggie, on the verge of opening a restaurant in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with her fiancée, Nate, as she travels to Montauk to meet his family, all gathered for the titular celebration of his parents’ divorce. The narrative switches between Maggie, hopeful but perhaps harboring something darker, and Gwyn, radiant, wronged, ready to make this divorce party a night to remember. When Dave takes on marriage as a topic, she can capture in a paragraph the vicissitudes of any stage of a relationship, whether it’s the bitterness of endings or the thrill beginnings. She’s able to take the everyday and the banal, the stuff of silly love songs, and spin it into something richer, real: “They are still there, in that space where they are so happy to see each other. Surprised and in awe. It is you. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe you were just a dream.” The First Husband, book number three, is the messiest (instead of a wedding, a summer weekend, we get a span of time—including winter—that runs from California to rural Massachusetts), and yet the emotional journey still rings true about what it takes to love: “A place where I had to show up. Where I was learning how to let someone show up for me.”
But it’s only with her latest, Eight Hundred Grapes, that I can really see what’s at the heart of Dave’s writing: Love and its multitude of forms, how it courses through the hours and weeks and seasons that constitute the tiny epochs of our lives. Eight Hundred Grapes takes place on a vineyard in Sonoma County, and begins with the image of our disheveled heroine, Georgia, in a wedding dress, an uncertain future ahead. And then there is discussion of just what kind of attention biodynamic wine requires, and a charming rake with a thing for licorice. But the heart of this novel—as with most of Dave’s books—is a tangled knot of human lives, bound by circumstance, but each ready and willing to figure out how to make love (and, in this case, winemaking) work, even when the odds look bad. Synchronicity is the key to the very best wines, as it is to relationships, to life: everything falling into place so you meet that guy on the subway, that girl standing in the doorway. There’s something important about the way Dave can find what’s transformative in life’s most quotidian moments, and it makes everything else in the world just a little bit bigger afterwards.
And perhaps that’s what I’m looking for in summer reading, when the temperatures rise and I dream of the beach. Though through genre, or marketing, or whatever, they might fall into categories of escapist chick lit, I’m looking for books that go deeper than the happy accidents of love. Laura Dave’s writing probes the subject, and its attendant mysteries, like a scientist, pushing characters together, forcing them to make—and face—life’s big decisions. The pleasure of her books is like that perfect pop song you can’t get out of your head. It’s the closest thing I have to a beach house some summers, and I treasure every minute of it.