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Summer Shift

A Novel

Forty-four-year-old Cape Cod clam bar owner Mary Hopkins is stuck in the cycle of her seasonal business; overwhelmed by the relentless influx of new names and fresh young faces, she feels as if life is passing her by.

In the first days of the summer season, a young waitress’s tragic accident stirs up unresolved pain from Mary’s past, leaving her longing for connection. At the same time, Mary’s life is further upended as she begins to suspect her beloved great-aunt, the one person in the world who loves her unconditionally, is descending into Alzheimer’s disease. Then, in walks Dan, a lost love—perhaps the greatest of her life— returning to the Cape after disappearing years before without an explanation. As Mary faces these challenges and losses, it’s her rekindled romance with Dan and her burgeoning unlikely friendships with a warm, eccentric collection of local characters that keep her afloat.

Set against the backdrop of Cape Cod sand, sun, and seafood, Summer Shift is the story of a woman’s struggle to find the peace, love, and human connection that have eluded her for decades.

The late afternoon sun yawned off the newly shellacked bar. Mary and Robbie stood inside the door to the dining room, which still smelled of gray deck paint and the plastic window tarps that had been delivered earlier that unseasonably warm spring day.

“What’s wrong?” Robbie asked. He knew her so well.

“It’s that lobster,” Mary said. She wiped the sweat off her brow with the back of her hand and pointed to the rafters. “It’s overkill.”

Robbie folded his arms in front of him. His light blue work shirt was unbuttoned to the waist, his tan chest speckled with paint. With less than a week to go before Memorial Day weekend, they’d been working around the clock to set things up. “This is a clam bar. I think the town fines you if you don’t have the requisite lobster buoys, fish nets, and plastic critters.”

Mary peeled the sweaty T-shirt fabric from her skin. She moved to take a step down the center aisle, but Robbie grabbed her hand and pulled her to him. “You fixin’ to break the law, missy?” he said.

Mary fell into his arms. She was exhausted, but in a good way, with a healthy ache in her young muscles. They kissed. Mary smelled alcohol on Robbie’s breath and wondered when he’d managed a drink. They’d been together all day.

“I can’t believe it’s really ours,” Robbie said.

“I can’t either.” Thanks, Mom and Dad, Mary thought. She knew Robbie liked to downplay their contribution, which was why she didn’t readily share these thoughts with her husband, how she secretly carried her parents with her into this venture, consulting them at every turn—how her mother, who’d had a good eye for design, might have laid out the interior, or what kind of bargain her father might have struck with the shellfishermen out on the cove. Things may not have gone down between Robbie and her father the way Mary would have liked, but the restaurant wouldn’t have happened without the money they’d left her. She was hell-bent on making it succeed, as much for her parents as for herself.

From as far back as Mary could remember, running a restaurant was what she always knew she was meant to do. Her great-grandfather, referred to only ever as “the Captain,” had operated a legendary clam shack off the Mid-Cape Highway in Eastham that was long gone by the time Mary was born. But she’d grown up with a sepia photograph of him framed in the upstairs hall, him standing in the doorway of his establishment holding an enormous live lobster. Something about that bit of family lore had captured her imagination, this and a love for the food she’d enjoyed as a Cape Codder from her earliest days.

Mary nestled her chin into Robbie’s neck, looking over his shoulder at the new carved wood Clambake sign at the end of the driveway. “I just know this place is going to make it. I can feel it,” she said.

“You can feel it, huh?” Robbie let her go and walked down the aisle. He bent over to collect a speck of paper from the floor. Seventy-Eight dove out from beneath one of the tables and lunged at his fingers.

“I mean it,” Mary said. “I know I’ll be good at this.”

“Let’s hope so.” He scratched the tiger kitten behind its ears as it wove in and around his ankles.

“Unless this lobster jinxes us,” she added, glancing upward.

The door opened and a breeze rushed in, carrying with it a few blades of fresh-cut grass and Mary’s great-aunt, Lovey. She was wearing her drip-dry navy polyester slacks and a beige short-sleeve sweater with a gold circle pin centered below her collarbone.

Seventy-Eight made a dash for freedom before the door swung shut.

The older woman slid her tan pocketbook up on her forearm and clapped her hands. She brought them to her chin. “My goodness, will you look at the place,” she said. Her blue eyes sparkled.

“Auntie!” Mary said. Since she was a child, Mary had always lived to make her aunt proud. “The tarps came today. And the tables. Of course no chairs yet, but they’re coming Wednesday. What do you think?” Mary held her breath.

Lovey took her time looking around, eating up every square inch. “It looks like a real restaurant. Why, I’d love nothing more than to sit here on a brisk summer evening with a cup of hot chowder—”

“You will, every night if you like,” Robbie said. He came up and gave Lovey a peck on the cheek. “I’m glad you’re here. You can help Mary and me settle a dispute.”

“Can I get you a glass of wine?” Mary asked. She started for the bar. It wasn’t stocked yet, but there were a few bottles in the cooler that Mary had brought from the house.

“That would be nice.” Lovey set her handbag down on the nearest table. She turned to Robbie. “What is it I can help you with, dear?”

“It’s about the lobster,” Robbie said.

She wagged her finger at him. “I saw something on Julia Child the other day. Do you have any idea how they make baked stuffed lobster?” Her face reddened. “They take and slice the lobster right down the tail”—with the heel of her right hand, she sawed at her left palm—“while it’s still alive!” Her eyes widened. “Then they spoon the dressing right in the gash and then into the oven he goes! Ach!” Lovey pressed her hands to her mouth, then shook them out. “Who could do such a thing?”

Mary smiled. Her aunt had always been an empathetic soul, particularly when it came to “God’s creatures,” as she called them. Though empathy was one thing and the woman’s love of a good lobster roll was quite another. “We’re only going to steam them, Auntie. They die instantly.”

Lovey’s shoulders relaxed.

“The doors to the steamer are so thick you can’t hear them scream,” Robbie added.

From behind the bar, Mary gave him the evil eye, trying not to smile. She found the wine. There were two bottles, though she could have sworn she’d brought over three. Then again, she’d been making so many trips back and forth, she couldn’t keep track of where anything was at this point.

“Anyway, we weren’t talking about real lobsters, Lovey, though baked stuffed does sound yummy.” Robbie grinned. Mary admired her handsome husband, even more so with that mischievous flicker in his eye. “In any case, we meant that lobster,” Robbie said. He pointed to the rafters, to the larger-than-life red crustacean caught in the net.

Lovey ignored his teasing and looked up. “What’s the trouble? I think it looks fine.”

Robbie grinned, victorious. Not so fast, Mary thought. She knew her aunt better than anyone.

Lovey walked down the aisle until she stood directly beneath the plastic creature. She cocked her head. “Though I see why some might take issue with it.” She tapped her cheek with her forefinger.

“Why’s that?” Mary asked.

“Well, we don’t cast nets for lobster, do we?” Lovey turned to Mary. “Your father kept dozens of pots out back. Don’t you remember—?” Lovey stopped mid sentence and looked at Mary. Her face grew long, as though she’d immediately regretted bringing up Mary’s father, who’d died just two years earlier.

“It’s okay,” Mary said. She smiled. It was good to talk about her parents. How else would they be remembered? “Of course. I used to love helping him set the traps.”

With that, her aunt seemed to relax. “I’m just saying, if someone’s a stickler, you might catch an earful.” Lovey Rollwagon being the Queen of Sticklers.

“You’re being too literal—,” Robbie started.

“And I supposed the most egregious error of all is that the lobster is red,” Lovey said. She folded her arms and shifted her weight from one foot to the other.

“So?” Robbie said.

So, they don’t turn red till you cook them!” Lovey said.

Robbie frowned. “Oh, yeah.” For once he seemed at a loss.

“Unless the oceans are getting that hot,” Lovey continued. “Did you know about that, dear?” She turned to Mary. “That the oceans are warming up? They think the whole planet is getting hotter thanks to pollution. I read something about it in the National Geographic. ‘Global warming,’ it’s called.”

“That sounds awful,” Mary said. Her aunt was always informing them of the latest impending catastrophes and natural disasters, though this one Mary had already done her share of fretting over. The idea of the sea level rising as a result of melting polar ice caps didn’t bode well for the Cape. One day this place would be waterfront. “But you’re absolutely right about the lobster. It makes no sense.” Mary scanned the counter for a corkscrew. “And never mind that, it’s tacky.

“I can’t imagine anyone eating a lobster that size, can you? My goodness. Imagine the leftovers. Lobster salad up the wazoo.” Lovey let loose with her staccato laugh.

“I don’t think they even sell fake uncooked lobsters,” Robbie said. “They’re all red.”

“Because they’re made in China,” Mary said. She found a wine opener in the sink and screwed the metal spiral into the cork. “Do they even have lobsters in China?”

Lovey turned to her great-nephew-in-law. She patted down the hem of her sweater. “Well, dear, as a decoration, I’m sure it’s fine,” she said. “But you did ask.”

“That he did,” Mary said. A little leverage and the cork gave way.

“If it’s any consolation, I imagine the folks who come here from places like New York don’t know red lobster from green,” Lovey said. “Just like they don’t know red chowder from white.”

Robbie laughed. “Now you’re just being a snob,” he said. “Far as I can tell, the people who get most upset about red chowder are the ones who once came from places that serve it. I’ve lived here all my life and I have nothing against red chowder.”

Lovey wrinkled her nose and turned to Mary, who was coming around the bar with a glass of wine. “You’re not planning to serve that Manhattan variety, are you?” she asked, as she took the drink with both hands. If there was one thing Lovely regretted, it was having been born in the Bronx.

“Never,” Mary replied. Challenging the unwritten plastic-lobster rule was one thing. Serving Manhattan clam chowder was simply against the clam bar code, a matter of ethics, heritage. Loyalty, even.

© 2010 Lynn Kiele Bonasia
This reading group guide for Summer Shift includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lynn Kiele Bonasia. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

 

Introduction

Mary Hopkins, a successful Cape Cod restaurant owner, is reasonably satisfied with her stable life. But at the beginning of a new season, when a young waitress is killed in a car accident, Mary realizes she knows nothing about the people who work for her. Meanwhile, she struggles to cope with the fact that her beloved great aunt Lovey has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Finally, when an old flame shows up at her doorstep, Mary is forced to abandon her careful existence and confront her own dark past.

As Mary fights to regain her footing, she becomes inextricably involved in the lives of the surviving members of her employee’s family and ultimately finds that moving forward usually involves forgiving the past. 

 

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1.)    What effect does the beginning of the novel, in which Mary and Robbie open the restaurant, have on the theme of failed expectations that pervades the story?

2.)    Many of the characters, such as Mary and Dan, express a deep sense of guilt in relation to Robbie’s death. How does the author handle the irrationality of this guilt while still acknowledging its inevitability? Does the last scene of the novel provide evidence for an ultimate transgression of guilt?

3.)    Early in the novel, Mary introduces the “smooth stone with a vein of quartz running though it given her by her Robbie on their honeymoon that she’d been waiting to skim on the waves  for fourteen years but hadn’t gotten around to it yet” (31). Later, it becomes a symbol of “her acceptance that he was now part of something greater even than the sea itself” (289). Do you think that the stone has come to represent something other than this acceptance? If so, what?

4.)    When Mary visits the crash site, she notes that trees have the capacity to mend themselves and predicts that “years from now, there’d be just a scar, some imperfection in the surface that would hold the memory of what had happened” (50). How does this mirror Mary’s healing process?

5.)    Bonasia gives the reader a contradictory image of time when she foreshadows that a shard of glass that has been thrown into the ocean will, “like everything else in time’s cauldron… be sufficiently pulverized” (84). How are these contradicting ideas reconciled in the end? Which proves to be a more accurate symbol?

6.)    Mary removes a stuffed bear from the crash site to save it from imminent ruin. Why does she do this? Further, what does it signify that Ariel is ultimately given the bear during the charity event?

7.)    Mary’s reaction to her aunt’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis is very different from Lovey’s own calm reaction. Compare and contrast Mary and Lovey’s reactions to the diagnosis. How do they play off each other?

8.)    How does Lovey’s ability to live completely in the present affect Meg? How is she able to learn a valuable lesson from observing her aunt enjoy such things as “the scent of cinnamon. A yellow robe. Warm coffee on the lips” (219)?

9.)    Why do you think Mary chose to lie to Meg about her true identity? How do you feel about Meg’s ability to completely forgive Mary for this falsehood?

10.) Mary’s new friend and neighbor Carleton Dyer asks her, “What is ugly? For there to be beauty, there has to be ugliness” (268). Do you agree with him? Cite examples from the novel to support your claim.

11.) Discuss Dan’s account of his near-death experience, in which he claims, “I was shedding the stuff that was not me, like the guilt or grudges I’d carried around all my life, my ways of thinking about things. It all felt meaningless and kind of washed off, and I was left with just this deeper understanding of who I was, that I was somehow connected to everything else” (378). Where else in the novel do you see moments of this ‘deeper understanding’? And how is it achieved in those cases?

12.) Towards the end of the novel, Mary asks herself (in regard to Alzheimer’s), “Where was the grace in such a horrible disease? Where was the grace in any of it?” (318). Do you think that Mary is eventually able to answer this question? When? How so?

13.) Discuss the scene in which Mary asks her employees to form a circle and share one thing about themselves. At the end of this scene, Bonasia writes, “it was as if they all at once remembered why they were there” (336). What have they remembered? What is the catalyst for this memory?

14.) Revisit the closing lines of the novel: “And though her heart was beating fast, she felt cradled in a stillness she’d never experienced before; perhaps her peace at last” (380). Which previous scenes do these last images evoke? How do they resolve the prevailing themes of guilt and loss?

 

Tips for Enhancing your Book Group

1.)    Throw a dinner party with some of the authentic Wayne Chen recipes offered at the back of the book (no synesthesia required)!

2.)    The character of Carleton Dyer bears a striking resemblance to Henry Hensche, a Provincetown painter who also suffered from Parkinson’s disease.  To learn more about Hensche and Provincetown’s art history, visit: http://www.thehenschefoundation.org/  (and make sure to support your own local community arts).

3.)    Visit the author’s webpage at: www.lynnkielebonasia.com. Make sure to read the article about the inspiration for her previous novel, Some Assembly Required.

 

A Conversation with the Author

1.)    Where did the idea for this novel come from? Is there a particular scene or character that you wrote first? 

The first novel I ever tried to write was a sprawling story about a woman who ran a clam bar. It ended up collecting dust on a shelf. After Some Assembly Required was published, I went back and reread the manuscript to see if there was anything salvageable. There’s a cyclical rhythm that seasonal business owners get caught up in that has always struck me as monotonous and challenging. And so there was still something compelling to me about my original main character and her situation. Nothing remains of the original work except for Mary Hopkins and her clam bar, and even Mary underwent significant changes. But I’m glad I took the time to find Mary’s voice.

 

2.)    Summer Shift seems to echo your previous novel, Some Assembly Required, in that it spends a significant amount of time on the theme of moving beyond loss. How, if at all, do you think your perspective on this theme has evolved between the two books?

Loss is something I’ve always been thematically drawn to in my writing, and so, yes, both books do deal with the process of moving past it. While I was writing Summer Shift, I was reading a lot of eastern philosophy and trying to incorporate some of this thinking into my own life. A lot of these ideas ended up in the book, for example, allowing oneself to be at ease with what is rather than constantly wishing things were different. Sometimes by merely shifting the way we see things, resisting our reaction to always judge, we can ease our own suffering. Carleton really embodies this wisdom for me, his being able to let go of the past and live his life in the present moment. Lovey’s disease forces her to live this way as well. Mary, like myself, is a student.

 

3.)    You have listed ‘waitress’ among your previous professions. How much of your restaurant experience is present in the novel? Which restaurant employee do you most identify with?

I waitressed at a number of different establishments when I was in high school and college, including a couple of seafood restaurants on the Cape. I definitely drew from that experience in writing Summer Shift, the controlled chaos, the internal caste system and the alliances that develop between co-workers. I think one of the interesting things about being young and having a summer job was that we all knew this was just a brief stop-over in our lives, and that we’d all be moving on to something else, most of us sooner rather than later. And yet we were learning some pretty important life skills. While I don’t see myself in any particular character, I can identify with each in some way, as an author must, I imagine.

4.)    One of your more striking images is that of the ‘shard of glass’ being first pulverized by the ocean before ultimately becoming sea glass.  How do you see the Cape Cod landscape as a reflection of Mary’s progression throughout the novel?

As many Cape Codders do, Mary turns to nature in difficult times. I believe if we’re open and in tune enough with our surroundings, we can often derive answers from our natural world, finding useful metaphors for our own lives. Standing at the edge of an ocean that’s been around for hundreds of millions of years, one’s problems are immediately weighed in a greater context. Nature has so much to teach, whether it be a lesson about perseverance from a fiddler crab, about the transient nature of all things from a shift in the tides, or how, through contemplating a shard of glass, we might learn that everything inevitably looses its sharp edges and yet there is beauty to be found even in that.

5.)    Wayne’s synesthesia is a particularly interesting character trait. Is this character drawn from any personal experiences? What sort of research was involved in bringing his gift to the page?

I’ve always been interested in peculiar neurological afflictions, especially ones that create ironic situations. I may have Dr. Oliver Sacks to thank for that (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). I had read about synesthesia years ago and had always planned to give it to one of my characters. The manifestation where people “taste shapes’ is far more rare than the kind where people attribute colors to letters, number or music. I recently saw the Kandinksy exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York (2009). He was purported to have the “seeing sound” variety and, for much of his career, his work was inspired by music. There’s a book called The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard E. Cytowic that I used as reference to understand Wayne’s particular type of synesthesia, and then proceeded to explore how, as with Kandinsky, such an affliction might be transformed into an artistic advantage.


6.)    How would you compare the writing process of Summer Shift to that of Some Assembly Required? Did either come more naturally? Why or why not?

Some Assembly Required was my graduate school thesis for my Masters of Fine Arts degree. It took several years to write and saw lots of critical feedback from professors and fellow students along the way. There were interruptions in the writing as well, as I had to put it down to do other schoolwork from time to time. Summer Shift had a much easier birth. It took me about 18 months to write. Not another person set eyes on the manuscript until I sent it off to my agent. Throughout the process I kept wondering if it was all too easy. After all the hand holding with the first novel, I worried whether I’d be as successful on my own. But I’ve heard other authors talk about how some books just seem to flow from them. That was the case for me with Summer Shift.

 

7.)    Two characters in the novel suffer from debilitating (? Would like to avoid “terminal”) diseases: Lovey is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; Carleton is living with Parkinson’s. How would you compare their coping mechanisms? Do you see a greater degree of resignation in either character?

I had a great aunt who suffered from Alzheimers’ disease and I was very involved with her care. I saw a tremendous amount of frustration in her at the beginning that eventually gave way to her settling into the inevitability of her situation. I think much of this was a function of the disease running its course. They say that Alzheimer’s is harder on the caregivers than it is on the patients. While I’m not sure if I agree with that, I did feel it was harder for us to let go at times. Parkinson’s affects the body dramatically and the mind to a much lesser extent. And so I would think someone would have to work harder to find a place of acceptance. Even Carleton, wise as he is, has moments of shame and frustration, particularly when faced with the prospect of having to interact with other people. I imagine that’s how it is in real life. No mater how enlightened and at peace you may be with your situation, there are going to be those moments where you resist what’s happening to you. I believe coping with pain, loss, illness and life, for that matter, is a practice, something you work on rather than something you achieve.

8.)    Discuss your research for the character of Carleton Dyer, a painter that bears a striking resemblance to Henry Hensche, a Provincetown painter. Did you learn anything else about the history of the arts on Cape Cod?

I have many friends who are visual artists on Cape Cod and I’ve have had the good fortune to be drawn into their world, which includes gaining an appreciation for the history of the Provincetown art community. I saw Carleton as an amalgam of painters like Henry Hensche, Edwin Dickinson, Ross Moffett, and others. I imagine how exciting it must have been to be a part of such a cluster of talent all living and working in the same small town, bouncing ideas off one another and achieving worldwide recognition. From Charles Hawthorne’s arrival at the turn of the century through to the Abstract Expressionists of the 40s and 50s, Provincetown, for all its beauty, light and freedom of spirit, has always managed to capture and inspire artists, a legacy that lives on today.

 

9.)    Do you have any new projects planned? Will you set another book in Cape Cod? Why or why not?

I recently had the opportunity to spend one week of pure solitude in one of the legendary Provincetown dune shacks. These are fabulously rustic little cottages with no electricity or running water, and situated just yards from the ocean on the backshore of town, accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicle. My intention had been to use this time to unplug and develop thoughts around a premise I had for a third Cape novel. All I’ll say is that my week was very productive and I’m excited to get going. I feel so lucky to be able to live and work in a place that has so much to offer in terms of natural beauty, history and an abundance of fascinating characters.

Lynn Kiele Bonasia has been a freelance advertising copywriter for more than twenty years. She has published short fiction in The Seattle Review and The Miami Herald, among others. She and her family spend summers on Cape Cod and live outside Boston during the winter. Please visit her website at www.lynnbonasia.com

"Warm, intelligent and charming. A moving read with characters that stay with you long after you have turned the last page.'

--Santa Montefiore, author of The French Gardener and The Perfect Happiness

More books from this author: Lynn Kiele Bonasia