A Hundred Summers
Beatriz Williams
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A Hundred Summers
Beatriz Williams
432 pages
April 2014
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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This evocative book tunnels the reader back to a time of languid New England summer days in which the oppressive heat--and the weight of secrets--makes us want to wipe our brow and reach for the nearest whiskey tumbler. William’s debut may be full of romantic cliches, but it’s also compelling. As light as a soft breeze and as foreboding as a dark alleyway, the novel leaves the reader constantly surprised at its various twists and turns.

In 1931, just two years after the stock market crash, Lily Dane and her best friend, Budgie Byrne, are searching for their place in the world. Although the Roaring Twenties have long since drawn to a close, you’d hardly notice it in the lives of these privileged women who live in the salubrious suburb of Seaview, Rhode Island. On the cusp of love and conscious of her attractiveness to the opposite sex, Lily meets hunky Jewish quarterback Nick Greenwald at a college football game, “his face hard as though etched from the same granite as the stadium itself.”

Beautiful, alcoholic Budgie is high on life and the immediate future, a femme fatale other women envy and men admire, either openly or covertly. Lily, on the other hand, is more demure, hesitant to commit fully to Nick, who isn’t as glossy as his mate, Graham Pendleton. Caught somewhere between the two, Lily signals her compliance to both Nick and Graham in every way. Feeling the giddy wheel of love’s anticipation, Lily’s memories switch between those first vivid and heady years to the Seaview Club in 1938, where she maintains a sense of futility over her unfolding love affair with Nick.

We don’t know exactly what happened to sabotage the relationship, only that Lily has attempted to banish from her brain the crucifying image of married Budgie and Nick having a dinner tête-à-tête. Budgie, in particular, has become a hypocritical paragon of virtue who preaches sobriety but indulges in drunkenness in order to liberate herself from Seaview’s social functions. Lately she’s developed a reputation as a vulgar money-grubbing drunk, “a loose-moraled little tramp” who probably married Nick for his money while flaunting it in Lily’s face.

Resorting to days lying on the beach with Aunt Julie and her beloved six-year-old sister, Kiki, Lily’s life unfolds in languid days of cigarettes and whiskey. She wonders why she had surrendered all claim to Nick in that bitter winter of 1932. Nick finally attempts to speak to Lily one night on the beach with Mrs. Hubert’s gin-fueled, clubhouse charades in the background, but the encounter only increases Lily’s confused tangle of feelings and ends up snowballing the anger, resentment and rawness of her own nerves beneath the gin and wine.

Though this novel is essentially a romantic melodrama, the literary nature of the writing makes for an entertaining page-turner, the interwoven time-periods blending together flawlessly. With great skill, Williams gives fascinating insight into Lily's complex family relationships. Much of the story takes place at Budgie’s summer home and Lily’s Park Avenue apartment, where the exotic languor of the pre-war era is beautifully captured and the novel's essence defined by the author's sharp observations of sexual intimacy and guarded scandals. Although her gorgeous prose is often labored by overwrought dialog, Williams consistently portrays the travails of Budgie, Lily and Nick, uncovering much of the anti-Jewish sentiment rising out of the damaged relationships endured by all of them.

At the center is Lily’s muddle of desire, shame, impatience and physical passion for Nick that tugs and melts in a series of graphic encounters. Even though the story moves back and forth in time, there is no loss of momentum among Budgie’s secrets, Graham’s whiskey kisses (“eyes lost and a little impatient”) and Nick, who throbs with life and stands before Lily in the warm Atlantic light while the great New England hurricane holds a pervasive gloom over them all.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2013

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