In Chip Cheek’s debut novel, Cape May, the year is 1957. Young Henry and Effie from tiny Signal Creek, Georgia, are on a two-week honeymoon in Cape May, New Jersey, where Effie’s uncle has a summer home. Henry “had never been north of Atlanta, and he had never seen the ocean.” Effie hadn’t understood what “off-season” meant when describing the bustling vacation spot of her childhood. It’s late September when they arrive, and as the waiter tells them at the one diner they find open that first night, “If you came to get away from it all, you came to the right place.” The newlyweds eat in silence, and are home and in bed by eight o’clock.
By the end of their first awkward week of marriage, Effie wants to go home early, and Henry, defeated, assents. But the night before they are to leave this coastal ghost town, they spot signs of life—signs of a party, no less—and decide to stop in: “They were nervous, for some reason; he could tell that she was too. Maybe it was the Rolls Royce in the driveway. Maybe, absurdly, is that they were expecting some kind of rescue and didn’t want to bungle it.” Enter brassy Clara (“she was a whirlwind, this woman,” observes Henry); her lover Max; his sullen, beautiful sister, Alma; and entirely too much gin and time to kill.
Cheek paints a graphic and sensuous portrait of an fragile marriage embattled well before its time. Henry is a brilliantly complex narrator, devastatingly naive and steadfastly assured of his own essential goodness. Sexually innocent but with a flinty edge, Effie is an enigma to her husband and to the reader.
Cape May is a besotted picnic of a novel—day-drunk and languid, shadowed by ever-threatening storm clouds.