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Book Review: The Summer of Good Intentions

By (July 3, 2015) No Comment

The Summer of Good Intentionsthe summer of good intentions cover

by Wendy Francis

Simon & Schuster, 2015

Cape Cod has an odd love-hate relationship with the “beach read” books whose scenes are laid their in droves each summer. You’ll see these books – basically anything set on the Cape, with special emphasis on the newest fiction – propped up on display in the bookstore windows of the famous vacation destination, but the staffs at places like Eight Cousins Books or Where the Sidewalk Ends will sometimes function as the first and surest barometers of that love-hate relationship, happy to highlight the books on the chance of snagging the business, but ready with a nervous, almost scornful little half-laugh at the very idea that any such book could get the Cape right. The actual inhabitants of any tourist attraction in the world would probably relate the same ambivalence about being used in this way: they’re happy for the attention but wary of intellectual carpetbaggers.

According to the “About the Author” note for Wendy Francis, whose new book The Summer of Good Intentions has “summer” in the title, beach chairs on the cover, and Cape Cod for its setting, she “lives outside of Boston” with her family, so she may not be a carpetbagger (as has been universally recognized since the 1600s, anything west of Framingham counts as the Midwest – but if she’s east of Framingham, she’s family). But she sure as Hell has the carpetbagger eye for the main chance: her book has more sure-fire gimmicks than Batman’s utility belt.

The story centers on the Herington sisters, twins Maggie and Jess and the youngest, Virgie. Every year, they come together for a month’s summer vacation at their friendly, inviting old Cape house – a ritual that’s held more or less intact even as Maggie married Mac right after college and settled into childrearing and after Jess married seemingly bland accountant Tim and likewise started a family, and the year in which The Summer of Good Intentions takes place is no exception: the three sisters (the chapter viewpoints switch off very effectively between them), still reeling from their parents’ recent divorce, make arrangements to vacation together again at the Cape house, and Francis’ homesy, affectionate description of the first day at a re-awakened beach house will hit all the right notes for anybody who’s ever done it:

In some ways, the house on the Cape felt more like home to Maggie than their rambling Victorian on Boston’s South Shore. The summer house, where she and her sisters had been coming since they were little girls, held some of her most precious memories: fireworks on the beach, late-night s’mores, her first kiss, her first heartbreak, and the day she and Mac were married under a bit white tent on the sand. Her dad had been down in May for a general check of the place, but a musty smell, coupled with something sweet, like air freshener, greeted them when they pushed open the front door. Maggie pulled back the heavy curtains and threw open the windows in the common area, then shooed the kids upstairs to do the same. She tugged the dusty sheets off the couches and hung the on the deck to air. Eventually the lights flickered on (though it was always a wild card as to whether the electric company had actually turned on the electricity on the date they’d requested) and the water began gurgling up through the pipes. Ah, summer, she thought. At last.

The Herington sister who’s not bringing her husband and kids is Virgie, who wants to be “the next Barbara Walters, the next big thing” and, despite her relationship with her latest boyfriend, Jackson (who, we’re helpfully told, always smells like soap), is totally consumed with her West Coast career:

Everyone knew Virgie was married to her career. Even as a little girl, she’d loved playing newscaster, reporting her school’s daily news at the dinner table. Maybe one day she would want a family, but not now, and certainly not like Maggie and Jess had done it.

In it-happened-one-summer plots like this, one character is almost always picked for major personal transformation, and even in this book’s earliest pages, the bullseye is pretty squarely on Virgie:

In the mirror, she could see the jeweled flecks of cellulite where her toned thighs used to be. The small creases hovering above her nose, once obvious only when she scowled, had become deeper, permanent features. Even the parentheses around her mouth had grown more pronounced in the last few months. Unlike the women she read about in magazines who claimed to have worse self-images than were actually warranted, Virgie had the opposite problem: she had an inflated self-image. She thought she looked better than she did. Shit.

She’d have to book her next Botox appointment soon.

The delicate interpersonal politics of a multi-family vacation are monstrously complicated when the sisters’ mother announces her plans to visit the Cape house – with her new boyfriend in tow. In the tradition of “beach reads,” none of this is particularly original or plausible (although Francis’ descriptions of the simple dynamics of married couples with children uniformly ring true), but The Summer of Good Intentions handles it all so smoothly and cheerily that even the emotional jolts delivered in the book’s climactic scenes will feel somehow comfortable. This book will be deservedly popular in the beach bags of Edgartown and Truro this summer, and the natives will just have to live with that.