Elin Hilderbrand’s A Summer Affair, is supposed to be a beach read. You know this because there is an image of two cute pairs of feet kissing in the sand on the book’s cover.
The fact that this layered, well-structured and sometimes thoughtless novel is supposed to be a beach read indicates a complication not only with our publishing system right now, but I think, with the way that American women are expected to read books.
As a novel, A Summer Affair is an excellent story that will pull you through straight to its climatic ending. However, it is populated with unsympathetic and white bread-boring suburban characters who have two problems: one, they have everything, and two, they still manage to muck up their life even so.
Perfect Misery in America
In the age of epically beautiful novels populated by complex and generous souls, such as Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, and Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, Hilderbrand’s Claire Danner (Note: publisher’s website calls her Sheila Cook?… this may be a late edition change) and Lockhart Dixon are painfully and stereotypically AMERICAN: they have everything they could possibly want, living in the most fortunate of circumstances and yet they are still miserable. The character of Claire, in particular, is specifically written to have “no boundaries”– her fatal flaw that draws her storyline through.
But, naturally, like her entire life, Claire gets everything she wants in the end (it’s a beach read for heavens sake… this isn’t exactly a spoiler!) including the love of not one, not two, but of THREE men, and her successful art career and perfect children, and her perfectly clean house on Nantucket with the Thai nanny, and one-upsmanship over a mostly evil divorcee co-chair. Not exactly just spoils for a woman who spent a year cheating on her husband and lying to her best friend.
An UnFine Balance
My girlfriend and I talked at length about why this book doesn’t work.
Genre, in particular, makes this story unsettling. Are we expected to expect that marital infidelity, because it is set in wealthy, white suburban America, is now a lite and fluffy subject that can be diminished to “beach read” status?
Or is it just that books that women read — all subjects relegated to “chick lit” — must be defined by our publishers as less serious genres like “beach read” in order to get our attention? Are our otherwise busy lives too burdened to take on serious subject, so much so that publishing companies now have to protect us from it, and perfectly good authors are writing around it?
Hilderbrand is a graduate of the University of Iowa writing workshop which, by definition, makes her no slouch in the fiction department. The quality of story shows here in the pacing and the complexity of character interaction.
But instead of writing a serious novel about marital infidelity and its impact on family life, she chose to write a butter cream icing novel about summer gala intrigue, which happens to include an affair between a co-chair and the charity’s director. It is Novel-as-Gossip instead of Novel-as-Exploration. At the end, even though the story is well-crafted and pulls you through, the real infidelity is Hildebrand to her subject matter: it is Novel as Cop-Out.
It’s possible that because Hilderbrand lives on Nantucket she does not want to offend her neighbors, and thus glosses over the true grit of a dirty affair. But that is secondary to the main offense in A Summer Affair: the happy ending. Suburban women seem to be worshipping an Eat Pray Love idealism, but unlike Elizabeth Gilbert, Claire Danner does not sacrifice anything.
The primary question this novel leaves me with is this: Why does Hilderbrand, an author with as much talent as she exhibits here, limiting herself to such creampuff storylines?
Is it nature or nuture?