How welcome: a beach read that centers on a beach, not to mention an engaging novel that manages to be romantic and real without needing recourse to the “F” word. Jamie Brenner, whose last summer romp, “Drawing Home,” took place in Sag Harbor, still graces our East End, though her latest novel, “Summer Longing,” revisits Provincetown, or P’Town, as insiders would say. The site of an earlier novel, “The Forever Summer” (2017), the Cape Cod vacation spot figures in “Summer Longing,” not just as setting but inspiration: the idea that a place can reconstitute character, not only for visitors but for a tightly-knit all-year-round community.
Though the cast of characters can at times get confusing as to who is related to whom, Brenner crafts a complicated heartwarming melodrama that embraces a number of contemporary issues. It has some unusual protagonists, a 58-eight-year old divorcee from Philadelphia, Ruth Cooperman, and a young biracial lesbian couple, “Fern and Elise, “washashores” who have been in P’Town long enough to qualify as “townies” and who are trying to make a go at a new tea business and having a baby.
A recent and wealthy retiree who gave up an international cosmetics company, Ruth decides to rent a seaside cottage in P’Town, where she met her husband 40 years earlier, and get some quiet, reflective time. Though at the Cape only that one time, decades ago, she has “indelible” memories of what she was like at that critical juncture between youth and adulthood, before she got married and founded her business. Her relationship with her resentful daughter Olivia, a social media publicist in midtown, never good, has deteriorated even more, and though she and her ex, Ben, a recently retired anesthesiologist, are friendly, they rarely talk, much less meet. Olivia is her father’s child, determinedly not her mother’s.
Ruth seems at first a little imperious in her determination to get away from it all. Fat chance! Shortly after she gets to her rental, she discovers a baby on her doorstep! No ID, but left with milk and a bottle. Whose could it be? “No one in town had had a baby. It had to be a summer person’s,” the townies say. And so the narrative moves with the reluctant but inevitable involvement of Ruth. As the occasional italicized passage (interior monologue) puts it, “You can leave your marriage. You can leave your company. But motherhood must be reckoned with.” Elise, however, is thrilled to take on the abandoned baby, and some of the townsfolk’s women are eager to help. Indeed, a major theme of “Summer Longing” is that P’Town can be transformative, mainly because it is so accepting.
In an acknowledgments section, Brenner, who first visited Provincetown in 2015, thanks those who befriended her and introduced her to P’Town lore: fishing, arts and crafts, holiday festivals, shops, restaurants, oyster farming. She doesn’t just create a charming postcard, however. She shows the town as it is in summer off Commercial Street — noisy, crowded, and, in spots, expensive. And there’s even a bad-mouth in the townie bunch, out to sow discord.
Yes, “Summer Longing” is a woman’s book: sentimental, simply written, paced to show the evolution of friendship and love. But though 20- and 30-somethings do claim attention, it is Brenner’s sympathetic and savvy understanding of older women, particularly those with family who were and still are fired to exercise creativity in the wider world — and of the conflicts these twin desires engender — that makes this summer read timely and significant: a sense of the hard, small stones, sometimes difficult to navigate, that lie underneath the smooth sands of a beach. Happy Mother’s Day.