Whether your toes are buried in the sand or you’re looking for a story to transport you to sunny climes, these lighthearted novels of family secrets and life-changing summers are the best beach reads of the season.
Summer in New England means blue skies and charming villages dotted along an endless coastline. Jamie Brenner’s The Forever Summer takes readers to Provincetown, Massachusetts, for an exceptionally expansive, warmhearted take on familiar beach-read tropes: a long-awaited family reunion and surprising revelations about parentage.
Nick Cabral fathered not one, but two daughters before his untimely death, a secret that isn’t uncovered until half-sisters Rachel and Marin are adults. The Forever Summer’s secret weapon is the older generation of women: Nick’s mother, Amelia; Amelia’s wife, Kelly; and Marin’s mother, Blythe. A former ballerina who gave up her artistic dreams when she married a powerful lawyer, Blythe is haunted by her own demons but utterly devoted to her daughter’s well-being. And Amelia and Kelly’s idyllic marriage is overshadowed by the sacrifices they’ve made to be with one another. Brenner provides a poignant look at the gay community of Provincetown by fleshing out Amelia and Kelly’s circle of friends—many of whom are in their twilight years, endeavoring to spend their last days experiencing all the happiness they were robbed of by oppression and disease.
Brenner’s willingness to engage with grief and loss and her ability to braid them with the hesitant joy of a new family coming together make The Forever Summer a satisfying read.
Elin Hilderbrand is one of the queens of beach reads, and she continues her reign with The Identicals. Identical twins Tabitha and Harper Frost are separated by the 11 miles of water between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. When circumstances require them to switch islands and take over each other’s responsibilities, the twins, who haven’t spoken in more than a decade, find themselves embroiled in romantic entanglements and long-delayed confrontations.
The setup is a bit contrived, and a narration from the voice of the islands’ collective population can be distracting. But it’s impossible to resist Hilderbrand’s gift for characterization and building satisfying drama. Tabitha’s daughter, Ainsley, who originally seems like an exaggerated nightmare of a teenage girl, is a standout character. Tenderly portrayed, she’s privileged and lonely—old enough to act out, but still young enough to crave her mother’s affection.
Hilderbrand deftly lays the groundwork for the reveal of what drove the twins apart. She paces the novel’s revelations just right, balancing them against careful character development so that when all is revealed, the reader may not agree with Tabitha’s and Harper’s decisions, but they can’t help but deeply empathize.
CHILDREN OF CELEBRITY
Another set of estranged sisters take tentative steps toward each other in Jane Green’s The Sunshine Sisters, set in Westport, Connecticut. The three daughters of Hollywood starlet Ronni Sunshine have all adapted to their mother’s cruel behavior in different ways, growing away from each other as a result. But when Ronni announces that she has a terminal illness, the daughters must return home to her, and to each other.
The novel opens with scenes from the sisters’ childhoods, giving the reader each character’s perspective and making the clashes between the sisters much more affecting. All three are impressively well drawn, and Green isn’t afraid to give them some ugly traits. Lizzy’s single-minded pursuit of her own ambitions could have been monstrous if Green didn’t make her such an effervescent presence. And while her sister Nell’s aloof nature has given her admirable restraint when dealing with their mother, Green also shows how Nell’s withdrawal from life has robbed her sisters of a protector—and may stand in the way of a suprising, affecting romance.
Maeve Donnelly’s life revolves around sharks, and her frequent trips to study her beloved predators have allowed long-simmering conflicts to fall by the wayside. In Ann Kidd Taylor’s The Shark Club, those conflicts come to a head when Maeve visits her grandmother’s beachside hotel in Palermo, Florida.
While there’s no shortage of interesting characters in Maeve’s orbit, Taylor zeroes in on Maeve’s development almost exclusively. It’s a decision that enriches the book to a great extent: With Maeve as the clear protagonist, the beachside locale isn’t glamorous window dressing but a constant reminder of the core purpose of Maeve’s life. Ultimately, all of Maeve’s choices relate back to the sea and her history with it, from her complicated relationships with two love interests to her reaction to her brother’s novel.
The Shark Club stays true to the logical, calm nature of its protagonist, but still evokes the subtle pain and thrill of being unmoored.
GIRL GONE WILD
We’re off to Taormina, Italy, for an utterly deranged mélange of The Bling Ring and The Parent Trap. Chloé Esposito’s debut, Mad, is escapist fare that not only leaves behind the boundaries of the United States but also any semblance of morality. It’s awash in gorgeous Italian men and designer clothes, and both get more than a little bloodstained.
Esposito’s protagonist, the recently unemployed Alvina Knightly, accepts an invitation from her twin sister, Beth, to visit her Sicilian beachside mansion. Enraptured with and jealous of Beth’s lavish lifestyle, not to mention her extremely handsome husband, Alvina allows herself to be talked into impersonating her sister for one afternoon, kicking off a wild ride of murder and mayhem. Alvina runs headlong into her sister’s shadowy and dangerous world, getting increasingly in over her head as her outrageously misplaced self-confidence grows.
The first in a trilogy, Mad is deliciously over-the-top, with a protagonist you’ll never forget and an ending that promises more chaos to come.