#LiteraryWives: The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Four times a year, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

Goodreads synopsis: In the summer of 1951, Miranda Schuyler arrives on elite, secretive Winthrop Island as a schoolgirl from the margins of high society, still reeling from the loss of her father in the Second World War. When her beautiful mother marries Hugh Fisher, whose summer house on Winthrop overlooks the famous lighthouse, Miranda’s catapulted into a heady new world of pedigrees and cocktails, status and swimming pools. Isobel Fisher, Miranda’s new stepsister—all long legs and world-weary bravado, engaged to a wealthy Island scion—is eager to draw Miranda into the arcane customs of Winthrop society.

But beneath the island’s patrician surface, there are really two clans: the summer families with their steadfast ways and quiet obsessions, and the working class of Portuguese fishermen and domestic workers who earn their living on the water and in the laundries of the summer houses. Uneasy among Isobel’s privileged friends, Miranda finds herself drawn to Joseph Vargas, whose father keeps the lighthouse with his mysterious wife. In summer, Joseph helps his father in the lobster boats, but in the autumn he returns to Brown University, where he’s determined to make something of himself. Since childhood, Joseph’s enjoyed an intense, complex friendship with Isobel Fisher, and as the summer winds to its end, Miranda’s caught in a catastrophe that will shatter Winthrop’s hard-won tranquility and banish Miranda from the island for nearly two decades.

Now, in the landmark summer of 1969, Miranda returns at last, as a renowned Shakespearean actress hiding a terrible heartbreak. On its surface, the Island remains the same—determined to keep the outside world from its shores, fiercely loyal to those who belong. But the formerly powerful Fisher family is a shadow of itself, and Joseph Vargas has recently escaped the prison where he was incarcerated for the murder of Miranda’s stepfather eighteen years earlier. What’s more, Miranda herself is no longer a naïve teenager, and she begins a fierce, inexorable quest for justice for the man she once loved . . . even if it means uncovering every last one of the secrets that bind together the families of Winthrop Island.

Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!!

The Summer Wives is a rich-people-behaving-badly novel. It’s not usually the genre I am drawn to, but it was a quick read and entertained me enough to enable me to recommend it to anyone who likes to read about rich dysfunctional families with secrets. The thing that I find most interesting about the story is that almost no one seems happy, so why do they keep repeating the past? Do they see no way out? Are they so worried about appearances that they don’t notice they are unhappy? Are they so attached to the land itself that they are willing to risk unhappiness to keep coming back? They continue to intermarry and have children who grow up experiencing the same things they did: dissatisfaction, affairs, gossip, the consumption of alcohol all day every day, and the treatment of the year-round islanders as though they are less-than. To marry a year-round islander is hugely frowned upon. So much so that even if one of them is your son or your brother, he is banned from taking part in your ‘other’/socially-accepted family life.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

More than anything, this book is a cautionary tale. Does anyone ever read one of these books and wish they could have that life? Despite the wealth and the parties, the beautiful houses and the gorgeous views, it’s clear to the reader that summer life on the island is toxic. And that marrying someone just because marrying is ‘what you do’ is a bad idea.

In this book, wives are necessary if you want a ‘traditional’ life, like your parents had before you. You must get married and have children. The men seem to feel this pressure as well as the women. When Clayton couldn’t have Isobel, he married Livy instead, which resulted in their unhappy marriage. (“Well, a fellow’s got to marry somebody.”) They don’t seem like bad people, just people who seem to make the same mistakes over and over again.

To be fair, it was also frowned upon for an islander to get involved with a seasonal (unless, perhaps, it leads to a prosperous marriage, which it usually doesn’t). If you are a year-round islander and you fall in love with someone from one of the summer families, you may end up pregnant by a man who won’t marry you and then marry someone you don’t love out of desperation. And, despite the fact that your son is part summer family, that will remain a secret.

So if you are a woman who spends your summers on a small island with the same families every year, seek out other experiences, expand your horizons, run run away!

You’d think they couldn’t stand all this shallow hypocrisy, after what they’d been through. And yet they embrace it. They want it to stretch on into infinity, never changing, never deviating one square inch from the old, dull, habitual ways. Marrying suitable boys you don’t really love, having children you don’t really want.

Side Note: Twice, in The Summer Wives, a version of Margaret Atwood’s quote, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” from The Handmaid’s Tale shows up: “Don’t ever let them keep you down. Those bastards…” and “Don’t let the bastards keep you down.”

Join us the first Monday in March 2022 for I’m Fine and Neither Are You by Camille Pagan!

21 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams

  1. wadholloway says:

    Not a book I’ve run into but it reminds me of Christina Stead’s Lettie Fox which is a brilliant examination of marrying – in the US around WWII – as the only career option for upper middle class women.

  2. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    I’m afraid the snobbery might annoy me too much to read this one, ha ha! But it does sound like a quick and entertaining read. I’ve never read one of her books before but we have many at the library.

  3. Jane says:

    It sounds a bit F Scott Fitzgerald with its ‘you have to marry someone’ way of thinking, it’s a strange way of thinking isn’t it, that it’s so important to stay inside the box, when so much is about seeing outside the box! Crazy

  4. annelogan17 says:

    Oh I’m so excited for your next book – I read that Camille Pagan book! Although it was awhile ago now and I don’t remember much about it LOL

    I like a good ‘rich people behaving badly’ book too, I think it’s sort of comforting to know that being rich doesn’t fix all your mistakes. 🙂

  5. Marcie McCauley says:

    I like books and stories set in this time period, but the quotations make me think this might not be for me (the cover too, actually). Still, it’s interesting to think just how much pressure there was to marry, to adopt traditional roles, in our parents’ generation; our children’s generation expects things to be so different, but in only a few decades the whole “you’ve got to marry someone” thing has, at least, been somewhat eroded. Those allusions to the quotation that Atwood makes famous in the Handmaid’s Tale don’t seem to quite fit though!

    • Naomi says:

      I would say you’re probably right about it not being for you. It’s not really for me, either! But it’s still good to get a taste of other authors and genres at times – especially because it helps me find books for patrons at the library!
      I put those Atwood allusions in just for you. And, no, they didn’t really fit. Maybe that’s why they jumped right out at me. 🙂

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