Kate Levin brings her brood from Boston to her tyrannical mother’s beach house every June. This summer — you guessed it, the summer of 1969 — she’s short on reinforcements: Her husband, David, has to work and can take his mother-in-law only in small doses (when you get to know Exalta, you’ll understand why); her son, Tiger, has just been deployed to Vietnam; her oldest, Blair, is too pregnant to travel; and her wild child middle daughter, Kirby, has decamped to a rival island to work at a hotel frequented by the likes of Ted Kennedy. (There is a Forrest Gump quality to Hilderbrand’s story, but not in an annoying way.)
The only Levin left to absorb the heat of mother Kate’s worry and grandmother Exalta’s judgment is 13-year-old Jessie, the crown jewel of the Levin crew. Picture Harriet the Spy with a preppy seashore twist, navigating her first crush and the shoals of her fractured family. Usually I read to escape adolescents, but I loved Jessie so much I keep hoping she’ll show up in the third row of my car.
Hilderbrand shifts among characters with her usual ease, weaving a saga that will make you forget the dynamics of your own dysfunctional people as you crowd into a too-small vacation rental. You definitely wouldn’t want to share an outdoor shower with the Levins, but you also won’t want to put down this book until you find out how they survive this stressful season. The answer may be the same as it is with most families — they stick together — but the road to get there is riddled with potholes that are fun to navigate as long as they’re fiction.
Welcome to old money, new heartbreak, big secrets and the kind of mouthwatering picnics nobody packs in real life (boiled eggs, tin of sandwiches, bottles of gin). But the North Star of Sarah Blake’s THE GUEST BOOK (Flatiron, 484 pp., $27.99) isn’t the Milton family — although they are fascinating, even the ghosts — it’s the Maine island cottage where they spend their summers. For me, it was love at first sight: “The house on the hill, the spruce line behind it, these wide verdant fields whose grasses waved like girls at a fair.” Even before the first page of the first chapter, you know this place is going to let you down — and yet, you climb the hill to the front door. Happily.
“The Guest Book” tells the story of the people who come to Crockett’s Island, summer after summer. Some are married in, some are born in, some are grandfathered in by virtue of their own ambition. Blake moves back and forth between the patriarch and matriarch, Ogden and Kitty Milton — driven by a tragedy I did not see coming, which almost ruined the book for me — and their granddaughter, Evie, who struggles to decide the fate of the compound and, in piecing together its history, uncovers an ugly foundation she never knew existed. She can’t look away, and neither will you.
A few summers ago, I read J. Ryan Stradal’s first novel, “Kitchens of the Great Midwest,” on a flight from Nashville to Newark. I buckled my seatbelt, opened the book and when I looked up again, the flight attendant was asking if I needed assistance getting off the plane. I didn’t, but now you know the spell this author can cast. He does it again with THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA (Pamela Dorman, 349 pp., $26), which I sucked down on a seven-hour drive from New Jersey to Ohio.
Like “Mrs. Everything,” this novel encompasses an astonishing swath of time while feeling like an intimate account of the journey of a single family. In this case, they don’t travel far. Stradal’s story begins in Minnesota in 1959, when 15-year-old Helen Calder takes her first sip of beer. She becomes obsessed: with drinking beer, brewing beer, making sure the beer she makes is on tap at every tavern and roadhouse within a day’s drive. Helen even bets the family farm on beer, cheating her sister, Edith, out of an inheritance and setting her on a decades-long path of penny-pinching and odd jobs, including one as a celebrated pie-baker at a nursing home. The sisters become estranged, their lives as different as can be, until Edith’s granddaughter develops her own unwavering fixation on beer and opens a brewery to rival Helen’s.