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The Summer Place
Table of Contents
About The Book
When her twenty-two-year-old stepdaughter announces her engagement to her pandemic boyfriend, Sarah Danhauser is shocked. But the wheels are in motion. Headstrong Ruby has already set a date (just three months away!) and spoken to her beloved safta, Sarah’s mother Veronica, about having the wedding at the family’s beach house in Cape Cod. Sarah might be worried, but Veronica is thrilled to be bringing the family together one last time before putting the big house on the market.
But the road to a wedding day usually comes with a few bumps. Ruby has always known exactly what she wants, but as the wedding date approaches, she finds herself grappling with the wounds left by the mother who walked out when she was a baby. Veronica ends up facing unexpected news, thanks to her meddling sister, and must revisit the choices she made long ago, when she was a bestselling novelist with a different life. Sarah’s twin brother, Sam, is recovering from a terrible loss, and confronting big questions about who he is—questions he hopes to resolve during his stay on the Cape. Sarah’s husband, Eli, who’s been inexplicably distant during the pandemic, confronts the consequences of a long ago lapse from his typical good-guy behavior. And Sarah, frustrated by her husband, concerned about her stepdaughter, and worn out by the challenges of the quarantine, faces the alluring reappearance of someone from her past and a life that could have been.
When the wedding day arrives, lovers are revealed as their true selves, misunderstandings take on a life of their own, and secrets come to light. There are confrontations and revelations that will touch each member of the extended family, ensuring that nothing will ever be the same.
From “the undisputed boss of the beach read” (The New York Times), The Summer Place is a testament to family in all its messy glory; a story about what we sacrifice and how we forgive. Enthralling, witty, big-hearted, and sharply observed, “this first-rate page-turner” (Publishers Weekly) is Jennifer Weiner’s love letter to the Outer Cape and the power of home, the way our lives are enriched by the people we call family, and the endless ways love can surprise us.
On a Friday night just after sunset, Sarah Weinberg Danhauser lit a match, bent her head, and said the blessing over the Shabbat candles in the dining room of her brownstone in Park Slope. Dinner was on the table: roast chicken, glazed with honey; homemade stuffing with mushrooms and walnuts, fresh-baked challah, and a salad with fennel and blood oranges, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds so expensive that Sarah had guiltily shoved the container, with its damning price tag, deep down into the recycling bin, lest her husband see.
Eli, said husband, sat at the head of the table, his eyes on his plate. Their sons, Dexter, who was eight, and Miles, almost seven, were on the left side of the table with Eli’s brother Ari between them. Ari, twice-divorced and currently single, his jeans and ratty T-shirt contrasting with the khakis and collared shirts Sarah insisted her sons wear on Shabbat, had become a Friday-night regular at the Danhausers’ table. Ari was not Sarah’s favorite person, with his glinting good looks and sly smile and the way he’d “borrow” significant sums of money from his brother once or twice a year, but Eli had asked, and Sarah’s mother-in-law had gotten involved (“I know he’s a grown man and he should be able to feed himself, but he acts like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are a food group, and I’m worried he’s going to get rickets”), and so, reluctantly, Sarah had extended the invitation.
On the other side of the table sat Ruby, Sarah’s stepdaughter, and Ruby’s pandemic boyfriend, Gabe. Sarah supposed she should just call Gabe a boyfriend, minus the qualifier, but the way his romance with Ruby had been fast-forwarded thanks to COVID meant that, in her mind, Gabe would always have an asterisk next to his name. Gabe and Ruby had been together for just six weeks in March of 2020 when NYU shut down and sent everyone home. Ruby had come back to her bedroom in Brooklyn and, after lengthy discussions, Sarah and Eli had agreed to allow Gabe, who was from California, to cohabitate with her. The two had been inseparable that pandemic year, all the way through their virtual graduation, snuggling on the couch bingeing Netflix or taking long, rambling walks through the city, holding hands and wearing matching face masks, or starting a container victory garden on the brownstone’s roof deck that eventually yielded a bumper crop of lettuce and kale, a handful of wan carrots, and a single seedy watermelon (“Next year will be better,” Ruby promised, after posting a series of photos of the melon on her Instagram).
Ruby and Gabe had stayed together through the summer, into the winter, and, after the New Year, when the pandemic had finally loosened its grip, they’d gotten vaccinated, gotten jobs—Ruby as assistant stage manager in an independent theater company in Jackson Heights; Gabe as a proofreader—taken several of their favorite plants, and moved out of Brooklyn and into a tiny studio in Queens, where they’d been living for just over a month.
Sarah finished the blessing over the wine and the bread. The platters of food had made their first trip around the table (Ari, Sarah noticed, helped himself to the largest chunk of white meat). She’d just finished reminding Dexter to put his napkin on his lap when Ruby, beaming blissfully, took her boyfriend by the hand. “Gabe and I have some news,” she said.
Sarah felt a freezing sensation spread from her heart to her belly. She shot a quick, desperate look down the table, in Eli’s direction, hoping for a nod, a shared glance, any kind of gesture or expression that would say I understand how you feel and I agree or—even better—I will shut down this foolishness, don’t you worry. But Eli was looking at his plate, completely oblivious as he chewed. Big surprise.
Sarah made herself smile. “What’s that, honey?” she asked, even though the icy feeling in her chest told her that she already knew.
“Gabe and I are getting married!” Ruby said. Her expression was exultant; her pale cheeks were flushed. Beside her, Gabe wore his usual good-natured, affable look. His dark hair was a little unruly; his deep-set eyes seemed sleepy; and his posture was relaxed, almost lazy, as Ruby put her arm around his shoulder, drawing him close. Sarah liked Gabe, but she’d always felt like he was a boy and not a young man, a mature adult, ready to take a wife and, presumably, start a family. Not that Gabe wasn’t a good guy. He was. He was well-mannered and considerate, supremely easygoing. He never got angry. He almost always looked pleased. Or maybe he just looked stoned. Sarah had never been able to tell, and these days, with pot being legal, she couldn’t complain about the smell that had sometimes seeped down the stairs from the attic when Ruby and Gabe had been in residence. It’s no different from having a beer, Eli had told her, and Sarah agreed intellectually, but somehow it still felt different, illicit and wrong.
“Way to go!” said Ari, extending his hand across the table so Gabe could high-five him. “Up top!” he said to Ruby, who grinned and slapped his palm.
“Can we be in the wedding?” asked Dexter. Dexter looked like his father, tall and lanky, with curly dark-blond hair, pale, freckly skin that flushed easily, and elbows that always seemed to find the nearest pitcher or water glass.
“We can be best men!” said Miles. Miles was more compactly built than his brother, with Sarah’s heart-shaped face and fine brown hair. If Dexter was an exuberant golden retriever, Miles was a small, neat cat, his movements careful and precise as he maneuvered his silverware and dabbed at his lips with his napkin.
“We’ve got an even better job for you guys,” said Ruby. “We’re going to get married in July, on the Cape. I already asked Safta, and she says it’s fine. She knows it’s my favorite time of year there.”
“So soon!” Sarah blurted, then gulped at her wine. Ruby had always been a determined girl. She hated to be thwarted; despised hearing No, or Let’s think it over, or worst of all, Slow down. Even a whiff of a hint that her stepmother opposed this match, or thought that Ruby, at twenty-two, was too young to marry anyone, would have Gabe and Ruby at City Hall by the end of the week with a marriage license in hand. And what was worse, Sarah thought, was that Ruby had told Sarah’s mother before she’d told Sarah herself. She felt a clenching toward the back of her throat, a feeling that had become all too familiar during the pandemic, as she choked back what she wanted to say.
Sarah had met Ruby fourteen years ago, when Ruby was just eight years old, a skinny, pigtailed girl walking down the hall of the Manhattan Music School, where Sarah was the executive director. She’d noticed Ruby right away. Or, rather, she’d noticed Ruby’s father, tall, bespectacled, and a little awkward, one of a handful of men in the sea of women; towering over most of the moms and nannies who sat, waiting on the benches outside the kids’ classrooms as their children shook maracas or thumped at drums. “Miss Sarah, do you have a boyfriend or a girlfriend or a husband or a wife?” Ruby had asked one day after class, staring up at Sarah very seriously.
Sarah had been charmed. “Not at the moment,” she’d said, and Eli had put his hand on Ruby’s shoulder, gently steering her toward the other kids, saying, “I’ve got it from here.”
Eli had taken Sarah to dinner that Saturday night, and to a Philip Glass concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music the following week. Eli was more than ten years her senior, divorced, with full custody of a child, employed as a periodontist. Back when Sarah had made lists of what she wanted in a husband, any one of those facts would have been an automatic disqualifier. She’d thought she had wanted a man her age, unencumbered by either children or ex-wives; a painter or a writer or a musician, not a man who did root canals and gum grafts for a living; definitely not a man who’d failed at marriage and already had the responsibility of a child.
But Eli won her over. He wasn’t a musician himself (“Six months of recorder,” he’d said cheerfully, when she’d asked), but when they started dating he began reading reviews and following classical music blogs. He took her to hear chamber music concerts and piano recitals, where he listened attentively and was unstinting in his admiration for the musicians. “Someone has to be the audience, right?” he’d said. “We can’t all be soloists.” She’d smiled, a little sadly, because once, being a soloist had been her plan. There was a version of her life where the closest a man like Eli could have come to her would be as a member of the audience, where he’d paid for a ticket to hear her play. But Sarah had abandoned that dream long ago.
Sarah loved the way Eli had pursued her with a single-minded intensity; the way he noticed what she liked, the way he always thought about her comfort. If they went out and the weather turned cold, he’d wrap her up in his jacket and insist that she wear it home. If he noticed her enjoying a certain wine at dinner, he’d have a bottle sent to her house the next night. He bought her clothes without asking for, or guessing at, her sizes (later she learned that he’d discreetly asked her best friend); he gave her a pair of beautiful gold and amethyst earrings to mark their first month of what he unironically called “going steady.” The first time he took her to bed, she’d been delighted, and a little surprised, at how much she liked it. In the real world, Eli was respectful, almost deferential, a feminist who had no problem working with women or treating them as equal. With his clothes off, he was different—self-assured, a little bossy, in a way that Sarah was surprised to find thrilled her.
Best of all was his devotion to Ruby. A man who loved his daughter, Sarah had thought, a man who was a good father, would be a good husband, too. She’d been right, for the most part. Eli had been a wonderful husband, even if Ruby had been a handful early on. Ruby had liked Sarah just fine when she was Miss Sarah at music school, had resented Sarah terribly when things went from being theoretical to actual, and when Sarah went from being a fun companion who showed up on the weekends and took Ruby to get mani-pedis or tea to a full-time, live-in partner to Ruby’s father, who made sure that Ruby did her homework, cleared her dishes, and finished her chores.
It hadn’t been easy, but Sarah had persevered, ignoring the resentment and nastiness, enduring the tantrums and the tears. She’d made allowances after Eli told her that Ruby’s mother, Annette, had walked out before Ruby’s first birthday, and she had done her best to not take it personally when Ruby made rude remarks or hid her house keys or left unflattering drawings of Sarah (her chin extra-pointy, her mouth gaping open, presumably mid-yell) lying around where Sarah was sure to find them. She learned not to flinch when Ruby made a point of correcting anyone who got it wrong: Sarah’s not my real mother. It had taken Sarah years of patience, years of ignoring slights large and small, years of extending her hand and having it slapped away, to finally arrive at the moment, right around her thirteenth birthday, when Ruby had started to soften and began to let her in.
It hadn’t hurt, Sarah thought, that Annette had no discernible interest in parenting. Annette was an artist with no actual career and no permanent address. She had always focused on herself and her current passions, whatever they were at the moment: learning to throw pottery or to apply henna designs, performing slam poetry in Seattle, or building costumes for an avant-garde theater company in Brazil. (Annette loved to tell the less theater-literate that the proper terminology was not sewing or creating costumes but building them.) Annette’s creative pursuits came first; her romantic partners came second. Her only child might not have even made the list.
And now Ruby was getting married! Maybe if Sarah had been Ruby’s birth mother, she’d have been comfortable telling Ruby no, she was too young to be promising her entire life to someone; that her brain was not done baking; that she still had the whole world to see and explore. Her father and her biological mother could have said those things, and Ruby might even have listened; but Sarah, as a stepmother, had to keep quiet, knowing that if she spoke up she’d only send Ruby running faster in the wrong direction.
“We don’t want a big wedding,” Ruby was saying, with Gabe’s hand still clasped in hers. “Just family and our closest friends. There’s not a lot of planning that we need to do. So there’s really no reason to wait.” Daintily, Ruby speared a drumstick from the platter and set it on her plate.
“What about your dress?” Sarah managed. “And flowers? You’ll need a caterer… and invitations can take weeks. Months!” Maybe she could convince Ruby that there were actual, practical reasons why this plan would never work. When Sarah herself had gotten married, she and her mother had spent six months planning the big day. There’d been a rehearsal dinner at her parents’ house in Truro, then the ceremony on a bluff overlooking the ocean, and, finally, the reception at a vineyard, underneath a tent, on a gorgeous night in early September, when the air was still soft and full of the smell of summer rose hips, the bay still warm enough for skinny-dipping. Late at night, after their rehearsal dinner, she and Eli had gone down to the beach, taken off their clothes, and run into the water. I thought it was bad luck to see the bride the night before the wedding, he’d said. So close your eyes, she’d whispered back, wrapping her legs around his waist and her arms around his shoulders.
“We’re going to do email invitations,” said Ruby, waving one hand in an airy dismissal of Sarah’s concerns.
“What?” Sarah squawked, wrenched out of her memory of skinny-dipping and rudely returned to the tragedy currently in progress.
“Better for the environment,” said Gabe, making his first contribution to the conversation.
“Siobhan said she’d make me a dress as a wedding gift.” Siobhan, Sarah knew, was an NYU classmate who’d majored in costume design. “And Safta said she’d help me with the rest of it.”
Again, Sarah mentally cursed her mother. Again, she wondered why Ruby hadn’t told her first, or at least at the same time. She looked down the table, at her husband, wordlessly begging him for help. Eli’s face was expressionless. He still had his eyes on his plate and his fork in his hand. As Sarah watched, he shoved another wad of stuffing into his mouth and started chewing.
“Can we be ring bearers?” asked Miles.
“Are dogs invited?” asked Dexter. “I bet we could tie the ring around Lord Farquaad’s neck!”
At the sound of his name, Lord Farquaad, the family’s corgi, who’d been sleeping on his bed in the corner of the dining room, lifted his head and peered around. Once he’d determined that no food was on offer, he gave a chuffing sigh, settled his snout back on his paws, and closed his eyes, looking vaguely disgusted at having been woken up for nothing.
“You guys can be ushers. How about that?” Ruby offered. The boys had cheered and Sarah relaxed the tiniest bit. When Sarah had gotten pregnant, she’d worried that the new arrival would further alienate Ruby, but Dexter’s arrival had been the event that finally turned them all into a family. Prickly, angry Ruby had loved the baby unreservedly. The first day in the hospital, she’d begged to hold him. As her dad watched, murmuring instructions, Ruby had seated herself carefully in the armchair and tucked the blanket-wrapped bundle against her chest. “Hello, Dexter,” she’d said. “I’m your big sister. And when you’re old enough, you can come stay with me, and I’ll let you do anything… you… want.” Eli had looked a little alarmed at that assertion, but Sarah’s eyes had filled with tears. Maybe this will be all right, she’d thought. She’d greeted Miles with just as much enthusiasm, and all through college no matter what else she had going on, she’d spent a week or two each summer with her half-brothers at Sarah’s mom’s place on the Cape, shepherding them through meals and nap times, driving them to swim lessons and Audubon camp, hunting for clams or hermit crabs on the beach, or going for a bike ride and an ice-cream cone.
“What’s an usher do?” asked Miles.
“You get to be in charge of where everyone sits. You help people find their seats, and you ask if they’re with the bride or the groom. It’s a very important job,” Gabe said, with one of his easy smiles. Ruby beamed at him, and Gabe reached over to give her ponytail an affectionate tweak. Ruby’s cheeks were pink; her usually sharp expression was almost dreamy. Her eyes sparkled behind her glasses as she leaned her head on Gabe’s shoulder.
“Have you told your mother?” Sarah asked quietly.
Ruby’s expression darkened. “We’ve talked,” she said.
Which meant what, exactly? Sarah shot her husband a frantic look, which Eli, still chewing, either didn’t see or chose to ignore. What had Annette said when Ruby called her with the news? Why hadn’t Sarah’s own mom called to warn her? And what was she supposed to do now? Congratulate those two children? Propose a toast?
Before she could decide, Dexter asked Gabe, “Did you give her a ring?”
Ruby flipped her hand over, curling her fingers into her palm. “We’re going to pick one out together.” Ruby leaned over and kissed Gabe’s cheek. Sarah swallowed hard. She knew Ruby so well. She knew how Ruby dreamed of being a Broadway director, how Ruby would tell everyone her favorite show was Angels in America, but how she secretly loved Phantom of the Opera, how she hated celery and loved capers, and was so ticklish that she had to cut the tags off any item of clothing that touched her skin. She knew that Ruby hated being short and was secretly vain about her curls and that she’d been delighted when an eye exam revealed that she was nearsighted, because she thought heavy, Clark Kent–style glasses would make people take her seriously.
Unlike Ruby, with her singular focus—Ruby, who’d known, since she’d seen her first Broadway show, that she wanted to grow up and work in theater—Gabe hadn’t settled on a career. While Ruby had earned a BFA in production and design at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Gabe had drifted through the general studies program, graduating with a degree in liberal arts and, as far as Sarah could discern, no idea of what he might use it for. He’d fallen into proofreading, and seemed to like it well enough, but when Eli had asked about his future, Gabe had just shrugged.
This concerned Sarah enormously. “Are we worried about this?” she’d asked Eli, right after the pandemic had started, before Gabe and Ruby had arrived. They hadn’t met Gabe yet, and had managed to gather only a sparse handful of facts about him—that he’d grown up in California, that he’d graduate with Ruby, with a degree in liberal arts, and that he was still trying to figure out what to do with his life.
“Why would we worry?” Eli said.
Sarah pointed at her husband. “You knew what you wanted to be when you grew up by the time you’d finished college.”
“Probably by the time I finished high school,” Eli agreed.
Sarah thought the idea of an eighteen-year-old dreaming of dental implants and root canals was a little weird. She let it go. “I knew what I wanted to be pretty early on.” And then decided not to be it, she thought. But even though she hadn’t become a concert pianist, she’d found a way to make music her life. She hadn’t floundered around for years, trying this, sampling that. Her own mother, as far as Sarah knew, had always loved books and writing, and had always known her career would involve those things, somehow, and her stepdaughter was the same way. “Ruby’s always known that she wanted to be in theater.”
“Since she saw Phantom,” Eli said, smiling fondly. Sarah had heard the story, early on, of Ruby’s first Broadway show, how enraptured she’d been, how she’d stood at the stage door and waited until every single actor had come out. “We were lucky with Ruby. Just like your parents were lucky with you.”
Sarah pressed her lips together, not wanting to dwell on how often she found herself doubting her choices and thinking about the life she hadn’t pursued.
“I don’t understand what Ruby sees in him. Doesn’t it worry you at all?”
“Not really.” Eli was in the bathroom with the door open. Sarah could see him studying his hairline in the mirror. “It’s probably the sex.”
Sarah chucked a decorative pillow toward the bathroom door. “Thank you for that. Now I’ll just sit here imagining…” She waved her hands. “… that.”
“Ruby’s twenty-one. Of course she’s having sex,” said Eli. He tilted left, then right, frowning, and handed Sarah his phone. “Will you take a picture of the top of my head?”
“No. Down that road lies madness.” Eli’s hair was starting to thin, but whenever he asked about it, Sarah assured him that everything was fine. His bald spot, she’d decided, would be her secret. Men are vain about their hair, her mom had told her. Even though it’s not as big a deal for them, they don’t like getting older any more than we do.
Eli reclaimed his phone and gave his wife a look that was equal parts fond and exasperated. “I think Gabe sounds like a nice guy.” He plugged his phone into the charger on his bedside table, then retrieved the throw pillow, setting it on the love seat. “Not everyone has it all figured out before they graduate.”
“But Ruby does,” Sarah countered, swinging her legs off the bed, heading to the bathroom to brush her teeth and floss (life with a periodontist meant you never got to slack on your flossing). “Ruby is going full speed ahead.”
“It’s called balance,” Eli said, a touch smugly. “He complements her. You can’t have two type-As getting married. You need one person who’s all drive and determination…” With a flourish, he’d pointed at himself, in his white undershirt and his plaid pajama bottoms. “… and someone who’s laid back and happy to let their partner lead the way.” He’d pointed at her. “That,” he’d concluded, “is the key to a happy marriage.”
Sarah had shaken her head, smiling, and Eli had come to bed, wrapping his arms and legs around her like a vine around a tree. “Wife,” he’d murmured into her ear, and she’d fallen asleep, warm and content, knowing that she was loved.
How glad she would be now for Eli to tease her like that again, to whisper “wife” in her ear! How grateful she would be for a moment of connection, however brief, during a disagreement. How she wished that she and Eli could keep talking when dinner was over, so that then, gently, she could turn the conversation toward him, and what was going on, and why he’d shut down on her just as the pandemic had started and her job and the kids’ schools had gone virtual and Ruby had come home and Gabe had moved in—the moment, in other words, when she’d needed him more than ever. But before she could start, she knew Eli would make some excuse about work, a Zoom call, a deadline, something he needed to double-check that sounded both vague and urgent, and he’d go padding down the hall, the flip-flops he swore were helping with his plantar fasciitis slapping noisily against the floor.
It was ironic. She and her husband had spent the pandemic year working less than fifty feet apart. Eli handled emergencies when they came up, but usually he was home doing telehealth visits and virtually teaching a class at Columbia’s dental school. He had an office. Sarah did her Zooms from the vanity in their walk-in closet, where a fancier lady might have sat to do her makeup. She helped the school’s two dozen teachers, including the Luddites who’d never so much as sent a text on an iPhone, figure out how to teach lessons online. She brainstormed with the development office about ways to raise money without the draw of in-person performances that doubled as fundraisers; she coordinated an online holiday choir concert. When she wasn’t on camera, she worked in bed, with her back against the headboard and her laptop on a pile of pillows in front of her. The boys’ school had been on a split schedule—two days a week in person, masked and distanced, the rest of the time at home, in virtual school. When they were home, each boy was in his own bedroom on the third floor, unless they were taking gym down in the living room, grunting or giggling their way through sit-ups and jumping jacks while a teacher called encouragement through the screen. Ruby and Gabe had been on the fourth floor for their classes. All that proximity, the way they lived and worked right on top of each other, meant that Sarah had never felt closer to her sons and her stepdaughter. But she’d felt increasingly distant from Eli, and every day it seemed like he was moving a little farther away.
You think you know someone, Sarah thought. She looked at her husband now, at the head of the table, cramming dinner into his mouth, clearly not tasting the food she’d spent hours cooking, not looking at her or at his daughter. You think you know someone, then you’re locked in a house together for over a year, and it turns out, you never knew him at all.
“Well, if no one else is going to do it, I’m going to address the elephant in the room,” Ari announced with a smug smile. It was so unfair, Sarah thought, that Ari was the taller, more classically good-looking brother. He didn’t use reading glasses, he’d never had back trouble, and his hair wasn’t thinning at all.
“What elephant?” asked Miles, looking around.
“Is there going to be an elephant at the wedding?” asked Dexter. “Arjun at my school went to a wedding with an elephant.”
Ari ignored them, waggling his eyebrows at Ruby and Gabe. “Anything else you two want to tell us? Is Uncle Ari going to need to get his shotgun?”
Gabe’s brow furrowed. Then he ducked his head with a shame-faced grin, as Ruby flushed more deeply.
“No! God, no!”
Ari held up his hands, palms out. “Okay, okay! All good! Just checking!”
“Uncle Ari,” said Dexter, looking deeply disapproving, “you don’t really have a gun, do you?”
“It’s just an expression,” Ruby said.
“Well, mazel tov!” said Sarah, lifting her wineglass. “To the happy couple!” Her celebratory declaration, even to her own ears, was far too giddy, too hearty, patently fake. She watched as Eli, with his mouth full, raised his own glass, then started to cough.
Miles and Dexter raised their plastic cups. Miles did it carefully. Dexter sloshed grape juice on the tablecloth, even though his glass was only half full. Eli managed a strangled “Mazel tov,” before starting to cough again.
“Dad?” Ruby asked, as Eli hacked, bent over his plate with his face turning red. “Dad?”
“He’s choking!” yelled Dexter, jumping up and knocking his chair to the ground. Miles got up, too. So did Lord Farquaad, who’d sensed either danger or a chance to snag some roast chicken.
“I’m fine,” Eli wheezed, waving them off.
Sarah stood and bumped the edge of the table with her hip, knocking over the wine, sending dark red liquid cascading down over the tablecloth, soaking her legs, and dripping onto the carpet, which she’d had steam-cleaned the week before. Lord Farquaad grrred when the decanter bounced past his head. Sarah pictured the dog snapping at her ankle; pictured herself falling, pulling down the tablecloth as she went. She imagined the lit candles rolling onto the carpet; she pictured the curtains, then her beautiful home, then the whole of her beautiful life, going up in flames, burning down to nothing.
Eli kept coughing, then hiccuped, then reached for his napkin and finally managed to hack up whatever had gotten stuck in his throat. “I’m okay,” he said, waving away the glass of water that Gabe had poured. “I’m okay. Don’t worry. Everything’s fine.”
I’m not, thought Sarah, staring at her family, thinking that Ruby and Gabe’s engagement was not off to a particularly auspicious start.
Reading Group Guide
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From “the undisputed boss of the beach read” (The New York Times), The Summer Place is a testament to family in all its messy glory; it is a story about what we sacrifice and how we forgive. Enthralling, witty, bighearted, and sharply observed, this is Jennifer Weiner’s love letter to the Outer Cape and the power of home, the way our lives are enriched by the people we call family, and the endless ways love can surprise us.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel includes very different mother-daughter relationships: Veronica and Sarah, Sarah and Ruby, Annette and Ruby. How are their relationships similar and how are they different? What do you think of Annette’s rejection of motherhood? How did it affect Sarah to become a stepmother to Ruby at such a young age? Why do you think Veronica has such a different relationship with Sarah, her daughter, compared to Sam, her son? Are there “right” and “wrong” ways to be a mother?
2. The relationship between Eli Danhauser and his first wife, Annette, was cut short when she left him and their young child, Ruby. Were you shocked by her rejection of motherhood? Did she redeem herself to Ruby at the end? How was this balanced by the stepparent relationship between Ruby and Sarah?
3. This story includes many secrets, some of which are revealed by the end and some of which are not. Do you think the characters make the right choices about which secrets to keep and which to reveal? Is there a right way to share a secret that will change someone’s life? Is honesty always the best policy? How do different backgrounds—such as between generations, or between women and men—affect the decisions made by different characters about their secrets?
4. After we hear the story of Sarah’s friend Marni, she thinks to herself that the story is a warning, “End your marriage and you and your children will suffer” (page 127). Do you think this is a common feeling among married women thinking about separation? How about among married men? Discuss the difference.
5. All three women in the Weinberg/Danhauser family have built professional lives around their creative interests: Veronica is a writer, Sarah is a musician, Ruby works in the theater. Both Veronica and Sarah must make choices and sacrifices as they balance their creative lives with their professional and family lives. How do their stories reflect the unique pressures on women who have creative or artistic interests? How do their dreams change as they get older and move into different stages of their lives? Do you think Ruby will eventually make similar choices to those made by Sarah and Veronica, or will she take a different path?
6. After growing up extremely close to his sister, Sam moves across the country for college and ends up staying after graduation. Do you think he felt like he needed to move so he could separate himself from his twin? What did you think of their dynamic?
7. Discuss Sam’s journey of sexual discovery after his traumatic experience of becoming a young widower. What was the importance of fanfiction and online dating? In what ways do you think anonymity both was beneficial and detrimental to him?
8. In the Cape Cod community where the events ofThe Summer Place unfold, there is a distinction, sometimes tense, between the “pond people,” the families (like Owen’s) who have owned vacation homes in the area for generations, and newer homeowners like Veronica and her family. How do the socioeconomic and cultural differences between these groups influence the events of the novel? Do you have any sympathy for the “pond people”?
9. It is revealed that the completed novels that Veronica left behind are based on Sarah’s life, but Sarah decides to have them published anyway. What do you think of her decision? Would you have been angry with Veronica? What did you think of her explanation, “that’s what writers do”?
10. After Eli confesses to Sarah his own duplicity, she decides not to come clean about her dalliance with Owen. Why not? Do you think she made the right choice not to tell him? Do you think he would have forgiven her? What did you think about Sarah’s relationship with Owen? Was he taking advantage of her when they met later in life?
11. At the end of the book, Rosa tells Gabe the full truth about his paternity and her ruse involving Eli. She even introduces him to his father. How would you have reacted to the news? Would you have forgiven Rosa for her lie?
12. Were you happy that they decided not to sell the family home in the end? Do you think it was important to keep it in the family?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. In this book, the walls actually talk. Try to imagine what the walls of your childhood home might say about you and your family.
2. The author was inspired by elements of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the writing of this book. In that play, there are missed love connections, love triangles, and even some magic. Read the play or even watch an adaptation with your book group to find the parallels in the stories.
3. Let the Cape Cod setting inspire you! Serve lobster roll sandwiches with crunchy kettle-cooked potato chips. Try out a Cape Cod Cocktail: mix 2 ounces of vodka and 3 ounces of cranberry juice with ice and serve with a lime wedge for garnish. Swap out the vodka for seltzer water for a nonalcoholic alternative.
4. Be sure to keep up with author Jennifer Weiner by visiting JenniferWeiner.com.
A Conversation with Jennifer Weiner
Your books always have a fierce, complex woman at the heart of them. Discuss what it was like to write this trio of interesting women who span three generations.
I wrote this book at a difficult time in my life. Last spring, the day before my older daughter turned eighteen, my mom died (on Mother’s Day!). My mom was wonderful. She gave me so many gifts, including a love of reading and a level of comfort in my own skin that I wish every girl and woman could have grown up with. Losing a mom when you’re in your fifties isn’t a tragedy, but my mother’s own mother, my Nana, lived to be 101, which meant my mom had her mother until she was in her seventies. When my mom died, not only did I feel very sad, I also felt a little cheated. I’d hoped I’d have her for many years to come, and that my daughters would, too.
My mother died in May. Then, in August, I dropped my daughter off at college in New York City. That was another nontragic loss, because kids grow up and move out. You give them roots, and you give them wings, as the saying goes, and then you watch them leave you.
Those two losses made me realize that the torch had been passed, and that I was now the matriarch of my family. It made me think about mothers and daughters and the passage of time. As my own first reader, I wanted to write a fun, diverting, juicy book that would keep me entertained and give me some respite from my real life, but I knew it was also going to end up being a story about mothers and daughters and grandmothers and granddaughters; about growing up and letting go of the places and the people we love.
Your characters wear masks and discuss other safety measures, such as quarantine and COVID testing. What was it like to write a book that portrays the pandemic as you were living through it?
If you’re writing a book set in the here and now, the COVID of it all presents a challenge. You either have to create an alternate version of history where everything’s the same but COVID isn’t present, or you have to somehow engage with a pandemic that’s been tragic and disruptive while also feeling endless and tedious. I didn’t want to write a book that was all about COVID, but I was also really interested in what COVID was doing to romantic relationships, to existing marriages, to families . . . to pretty much everything. I’d read a lot about people who’d just started dating and moved in together when the first quarantines began, and I absolutely wanted to explore what hitting the fast-forward button like that could do to a new relationship. Similarly, I think that COVID lay bare the ways that women were bearing the burden of a household’s emotional labor, all of the invisible things that help a family function. I knew what it was like for me when my house suddenly turned into my husband’s office, my kids’ school, a 24-hour diner/laundry/therapist’s office, and I wanted to write about that, too.
You have a sentient house in this book. How did you get into the “mind” of a family home?
Honestly, I think getting into the mind of a house was easier than getting into the minds of some of the male characters I’ve written!
Architects and interior designers talk about houses with bones and a house’s character; houses where you walk inside and immediately have a sense of the people who live there. Between bones and character, you’re already halfway to a person! I’ve also always been struck by the idea that, on a molecular level, houses contain the echoes of every conversation held inside of them, the scents of every meal prepared. It didn’t seem to be too far of a leap to imagine a house that not only holds all that history but also has feelings about it. I imagined the house as a protector, the keeper of the family’s memories, an entity that knows them intimately and wants what’s best for them. Once I had that identity established, writing the specifics wasn’t that hard.
In this book, you explore parenting from many angles. There are stepparents, single parents, and even a rejection of the experience entirely. What do you want readers to take away from the book about the expectations of parenting?
I’ve always been interested in the idea of found families, or how you can make your own family, and it’s not necessarily going to include all (or any of) the people who are biologically related to you. I also wanted to celebrate stepparents and the difficult role they have to play. The fairy tales and Disney films might cast them as the villains, but I think that stepparents can have a really lovely, supportive role in a child’s life. Like Sarah says, a stepmother or stepfather can be a bonus adult in a kid’s life, another person who can provide stability and support. Or, in more dire cases (poor Connor!), a stepparent can be all the stability and support a kid has. I wanted to write a realistic story, not a fairy tale where a stepdaughter instantly and permanently loves her stepmother, or a stepson doesn’t have to work through feelings of abandonment and sorrow, but where the relationship takes time and effort on both sides. Most of all, I wanted to show the importance of kids getting love and support and stability from the adults who are around and available to give it to them. I want readers to come away knowing that they have the power to be that stable, loving person in a child’s life, even if they don’t have the official title of Mom or Dad.
We are truly transported to Cape Cod in the book. What do you find so inspiring about that setting?
The Outer Cape has always been one of my favorite places. It’s the place I went on summer vacations with my family when I was a child, the place where I took my own kids. It was also one of my mother’s favorite places. She loved to swim, in the ocean and the bay and the freshwater kettle ponds. She loved to ride her bike, and to walk around Provincetown, which is one of the most vibrant, colorful, eclectic towns in the world. I have so many wonderful memories of the time I’ve spent there . . . and, in the midst of the pandemic, there were so many moments when I wished I was there: that it was summer, and I could feel the sand under my feet and smell the salt water and hear the wind rustling the reeds. I think so many of us needed (or still need) an escape from the world, and if The Summer Place gives readers a little bit of that escape and a sense of what it feels like to be in this beautiful, wild, unspoiled place, that makes me very happy as an author.
You pull themes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream into The Summer Place. Talk about the ways that the play inspired you in telling this story.
I love the idea of enchantment—about people taken out of their familiar surroundings, shipwrecked on an island or lost in a forest, where there are supernatural forces that work to bring lovers together. I love the tropes: Forbidden love! Love triangles! Love potions! And, of course, I love a happy ending.
I’ve also felt—correctly or not—like the last two years have been sort of like an enchantment (not necessarily a good one!). We’ve all been pulled out of our familiar lives and “shipwrecked” somewhere else. There are supernatural forces at work, or at least invisible ones, in the form of an ever-mutating virus. We’ve all started off one place and ended somewhere else, whether it’s a happy ending or not.
And, of course, books are their own kind of enchantment. They have their own way of taking us out of the familiar and setting us down somewhere else, where a bunch of actors or players or fairies say, “Let us tell you a story.” You bring your own imagination to the table; you work in concert with the storytellers to imagine the setting and the characters, even as you understand that someone else is dictating the action and bringing everything to what’s hopefully a satisfying conclusion.
Storytelling is the most human kind of magic. It’s maybe even the only magic we have. And to me it feels like that particular kind of magic has never been more necessary.
Veronica Levy is a novelist who pulls back from publishing for a long time. Is it strange to write as a character who is a novelist like yourself? Are there similarities that you share with her?
This isn’t the first time I’ve written a character who is a successful novelist whose career goes in a different direction than mine has. Midcareer is an interesting place to be—you’re not the ingenue, not the hot young thing, not any big tastemaker’s delightful new discovery. I’ve always tried to push myself, to make each book better than, and different from, the one before it. With the Cape Cod trilogy, I’ve tried to play with the idea of a “beach book,” using the elements of the label that appeal to me (the seductive seaside setting, the idea of romance and happy endings) while pushing the boundaries of the genre. But I think every writer is interested in the road not taken and uses characters to explore directions in which her own life hasn’t gone.
With Veronica, I wanted her to make what I regard as the ultimate sacrifice. She’s disappointed in herself. She doesn’t like the person she’s become in success. She wants to make amends. And so she gives up her art, or at least the public expression of her art (it was hard enough to make her give up publishing, and I think that asking a writer not to write is akin to asking her to cut off a limb!). It’s a huge sacrifice, but I think a lot of women who become mothers usually do give up something, whether it’s in the personal or the professional sphere. I think that Ronnie’s story is a version of many women’s stories when what they want in the professional world bumps up against marriage and motherhood, and something’s got to give. It’s my hope that this book will occasion some interesting conversations about how women still seem to have to pick one or the other—being the best mother or excelling at work—while men seem to more easily be able to do both.
Why We Love It
“Expansive and moving, hilarious and heartwarming, meaningful and magnetic, I absolutely loved this story of a sprawling family reconvening in the place of their youth, a place sincerely special to them, for one last hurrah. Everything that comes before and proceeds their reunion captivated me. I adored these characters, every last one of them. Even the more secondary characters took my breath away. They are all exceedingly three-dimensional and reach-out-and-touch-them true. I absolutely loved it, and I cannot wait for readers to discover it. We’re back to the beach, but with so many secrets, so much drama, so much on the line, so much to learn and discover.”
—Lindsay S., VP, Editorial Director, on The Last Summer
- Publisher: Washington Square Press (April 4, 2023)
- Length: 448 pages
- ISBN13: 9781501133589
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Raves and Reviews
Praise for The Summer Place:
“[A] funny, tender read. A new novel from Weiner heralds the start of beach reading season, so prepare your collections accordingly.” —Booklist (starred review)
“The Summer Place is so good, it will be on every beach this summer. [It] gets at the core of just how life's twists and turns, choices and moments can consume us – and how beautiful that entanglement can be, despite the hardships…with its Cape Cod setting that evokes seashells, cool water, melting ice cream and summer bliss, it's sure to be the must-have beach bag item this year.” —USA Today
“A meditation on mothers and daughters, Weiner’s latest novel also explores class conflicts, identity issues and real estate dramas." —The New York Times
"From steamy affairs to juicy family secrets, bestselling author Jennifer Weiner’s scintillating beach read has it all." —Apple Books
"The natural beauty of the Outer Cape is the backdrop for plenty of family drama and romantic intrigue in Weiner’s latest novel, which incorporates the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic but still manages to feel breezy and delicious to read." —Emma Specter, Vogue
"In Jennifer Weiner's latest...expect all of the hijinks, heartbreak, and happiness of a messy reunion." —The Boston Globe
“A family’s secrets and entanglements flare up during a Cape Cod wedding in this first-rate page-turner from Weiner. [She] is a master of emotionally complicated narratives, and her smart and witty writing is on full display here. This engrossing novel will please her legions of fans.” —Publishers Weekly
“Weiner creates a story with all the misunderstandings and miscommunications of a screwball comedy or a Shakespeare play (think A Midsummer Night’s Dream). But the surprising, over-the-top actions of the characters are grounded by a realistic and moving look at grief and ambition…even when the characters are lying, cheating, and hiding from each other, they still seem like a real and loving family…[a] poignant look at family bonds.” —Kirkus
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