“The Summer Wives” by Beatriz Williams combines romance, secrecy and suspense. As with all her books she concentrates on a mystery, the murder of a rich playboy, and social issues, class conflicts. Intertwined within the plot are complex relationships that connect all the characters.
The setting plays an important role in this novel, just as it had in William’s blockbuster novel, “A Hundred Summers.” Both take place on an island with an obvious clash between the haves and have-nots, where all are determined to keep the outside world from its shores. In this book, Winthrop Island, off the New England coast, is the summer retreat for the old wealth and elite and the yearly home of the working class of Portuguese fishermen and domestic workers as well as their families.
“Winthrop Island is inspired by Fisher’s Island, which is off the coast of Connecticut,” Williams said. “Until the early 1920s it was purely farm land. It was then developed where half of the island has beautiful homes and a golf course. It was very difficult to research because people don’t like to talk about Fisher’s Island. Most of the Island is behind a guard’s booth and it is isolated since the only way to get there is by ferry. Older money came there to escape and use it as a retreat. Families came there year after year during the summer, mingling only with themselves. They went to the Island to build silos around themselves.”
The story is centered around Miranda Schulyer, told in different time frames. In 1951, she was an 18-year-old just graduating high school, and then it fast forwards to 1969 where she is a 36-year-old actress. All the incidents in the book go back to how Miranda was affected by them, whether the death of her father, the murder of her step-father, the relationships between Joseph and Isobel, also Miranda’s sister by marriage, and her true love, Joseph.
Coming from a modest family Miranda is thrown into a world of wealth and elitism after her mother marries Hugh Fisher. His great-grandfather made the family rich by taking advantage of the Victorian hygiene craze. She is drawn to Joseph, the son of the lighthouse keeper and a lobster fisherman, who is on summer break from Brown University. Realizing she is falling in love with Joseph her dreams are shattered after he is accused of murdering her step-father and she is banished from the island for defending him.
“I wanted to explore the relationship between the summer residents and the year-round residents, made up of the working class,” Williams said. “The differences included religion: Catholicism of the ordinary folks, and the Episcopal Church of the WASP culture that was only opened during the summer. In addition, there was a class and wealth difference. I wanted to explore all these disparities.”
Fast-forward to 1969 after Miranda returns, now a famous actress. Both Joseph and Miranda are escaping. She tries to renew her relationship with her step-sister, Isobel, and her mother, while Joseph is trying to survive as a fugitive. She wants to reignite the love she had for Joseph and prove his innocence. But in doing so, the Island’s secrets begin to unravel.
“I wanted to show how those who fought in World War II were from the elite class of leaders in the military, political and industrial world,” the author said. “But during the years the story takes place in they chose to exist on the money their grandparents made. They essentially became spectators instead of participants. This generation prized itself on preservation rather than innovation, so they became static. The future does not belong to people who don’t want to change. They never questioned the values of society. I chose 1969 because of the moon landing. It has the symbolism of showing that this generation was just deep spectators. Once they went into preservation mode they wrote off their own relevance.”
The book delves into the themes of heroism, sacrifice, and redemption within the self-contained society. In some ways, it will remind people of those 1930 movies where love conflicts with power.