|The Beach House
By Jane Green
According to USA Today, a book by Jane Green is “a total bon-bon.” If The Beach House is a bon-bon, it’s made with cloying drug-store-quality chocolate, but sure—it’s sweet and easy to swallow. But “smart and complex,” as another blurb on the back cover would have us believe? “Deliciously witty”? No. Make no mistake, The Beach House is horribly written. If what you want is inconsequential fluff to while away an afternoon at the beach, then Jane Green may be your bag. But don’t kid yourself that it’s deftly crafted.
The action centers around Nan, an eccentric older woman who has lived well for many years on Nantucket but finds herself suddenly strapped financially. She decides to rent out rooms for the tourist season. Green then sets about introducing us to the other major players—people whose circumstances will bring them unexpectedly to Nantucket for a very special summer—all of whom have recently gone through a romantic crisis. There are two recent divorcees, one the cuckolded mother of a teenage daughter, the other a man who ends his marriage when he is the last to realize he’s gay. Nan’s son Michael has also returned to the island after a disastrous affair with his married boss of twenty years. All these folks had believed they were happy before their relationships fell apart; now they’re taking a break from their busy lives to find themselves.
I’ll take a cue from Green and state the obvious: Everything in this book is a cliché, and she tends to pick a cliché and stick with it, recycling and rehashing it with little variation over the course of the novel. All the women are the same: beautiful, but not getting any younger; strong-willed and accustomed to getting their way; known by quirky, old-fashioned nicknames (Nan, Bee, Daff). The main character has been going by Nan so long she has, improbably, “mostly forgotten her given name.” The men are all handsome, fit, loving and kind, the kind of men who grin a lot (I hate when people “grin” in novels). If they betray any flaw it’s having made some poor choices in the past, but they’re determined to change for the better.
Green’s writing is excruciatingly lazy and sloppy, as though she couldn’t be bothered to read back over what she had written. She is constantly giving us the same information twice. On the second page, Nan trespasses onto a neighbor’s property for a quick dip in their pool, as she is wont to do: “the water was so blue, so inviting, it was practically begging her to strip off and jump in, which of course she did, her body still slim and strong, her legs tan and muscled.” Drying off “naturally” (are towels unnatural?) she wanders naked around the garden, and we are told again that at 65 she is “skinny and strong.”
When she’s not repeating herself, Green is directly contradicting herself. Still on page 2, Green writes that “Nan’s is a beauty that is rarely seen these days, a natural elegance and style that prevailed throughout the fifties, but has mostly disappeared today.” In the next paragraph, we are told that Nan “covers as many of [her] imperfections as she can with makeup, still feels that she cannot leave her house without full makeup, her trademark scarlet lipstick the first thing she puts on every morning, before her underwear even, before her bath.” Green’s definition of “natural” is inscrutable.
Green contradicts herself again when she explains the disappearance of Nan’s husband years earlier, when their son was six. At first she thinks nothing of his being gone when she wakes: “She had woken up one morning and the bed had been empty, which was not particularly unusual—he would often wake up and go for an early morning swim—but it wasn’t until he failed to return that her heart quickened with a trace of anxiety.” But in the next sentence, we are told the opposite: “She went down to the beach, and still she remembers that she knew, knew from the moment she turned over and saw his side of the bed empty, that there was something not quite right.”
In perhaps the most implausible moment of the book, Nan finds her husband’s T-shirt and watch on the beach, and concludes that he has committed suicide:
No note. Nothing. […] Nan had stood and looked out over the waves, listening to the ocean crash around her as a tear rolled down her cheek. She wasn’t looking for him, she knew he had gone.
She just didn’t know why.
What the hell? If she knew of no reason why her husband would kill himself, and he often swam in the ocean, why on earth would she jump so quickly to the conclusion that he’d thrown himself into his own watery grave? Nonsense. Any sane person would think that he’d drowned accidentally and initiate a search, holding out hope that he’d only drifted out to another beach. But Nan is gifted with supernatural instincts. She just knows that he’s “gone” and begins making her lifelong peace with that loss.
Her hunches throughout the novel are infallible, making The Beach House an astoundingly boring and predictable read. She makes her matchmaking intentions very clear from the moment her tenants arrive. Daff, the newly single mother, will be a perfect match for her son Michael—though he’s been a George Clooney-esque serial dater until this fateful summer. And she sets the just-outed Daniel up with her landscaper. Both couples, despite full awareness of Nan’s machinations, hit it off swimmingly and only the most minor and contrived obstacles stand in their way before they’re united in perfect love, the kind of love they’d heard about but never actually experienced.
The most annoying thing about this book for me, as a writer, is Green’s ignorance, or rejection, of the most basic tenets of good writing. I kept thinking of the old workshop saw, “Show, don’t tell.” Green never lets her characters’ words and actions speak for themselves, she just spells out their emotions and beliefs in the most prosaic way—much easier for both her and the reader I suppose. For example: “Jessica blames her mother for the marriage breaking up.” This would be amply evident if she didn’t state it; Jessica tells her mother she hates her and has ruined her life, then runs away from home to live with her father instead. But Green won’t take any chances that someone might miss the implications of those events.
Making things worse, the dialogue throughout is false and wooden, full of stock lines like, “I miss us.” In one early scene, Nan takes a phone call from her son, and Green commits a preposterous blunder (the book is narrated, pointlessly and awkwardly, in the present tense):
Nan turns off the tap and reaches for a cigarette.
“Oh Mom. You’re not still smoking.”
Can Michael hear her reach for a cigarette? Or has Green forgotten that her characters can’t watch themselves, like actors viewing dailies?
I would like to say that Green is badly in need of an editor, but it would seem that she is not—people are buying this shit in droves as is. Fans might argue that books like this are “just for fun,” but I’d counter that trashy beach reads needn’t be logically inconsistent and devoid of surprises. This type of fiction must have a Lifetime Network/Desperate Housewives kind of so-bad-it’s-good appeal for her many readers, but for someone unaccustomed to “chick lit” dreck, it’s so bad it’s just bad.
Elisa Gabbert‘s recent work can be found in Colorado Review, Diagram, Eleven Eleven, Meridian, Pleiades, Washington Square, and other journals. She is the author of two chapbooks from Kitchen Press, Thanks for Sending the Engine (2007) and My Fear of X (forthcoming). She is also co-author, with Kathleen Rooney, of Something Really Wonderful (dancing girl press, 2007) and That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness (Otoliths Books, 2008). Their collaborative poems can be found in Boston Review, Caketrain, and jubilat.