Sometimes it pays to let yourself be manipulated. My first instinct upon seeing Hilma Wolitzer's new novel was to pooh-pooh it as a bald appeal to book clubs across the land.
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Summer Reading by Hilma Wolitzer, hardcover, 272 pagesI mean, come on: Here we have a novel, set in the glossy beach towns of the Hamptons, about rich women who gather to gossip and drowsily comment on classics like Madame Bovary that they've maybe half-read.
Even more shameful, Wolitzer's novel is brazenly entitled Summer Reading. And you want to know the most outrageous thing about this novel? It works. It's droll and inventive and smart — in a rollicking way — about the way books can both enlarge and warp the world views of susceptible readers.
I was especially vulnerable to the fantasy Wolitzer spins out about her main character: Angela Graves is a retired English professor who lives in a book-lined cottage by the sea. The only irksome facet of her life is her seasonal job leading discussions at local book groups. One of those groups, hosted by a blonde billionairess named Lissy Snyder, calls itself The Page Turners. Its members pay a lot of attention to style and less to substance: For its ostensible discussion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, for instance, The Page Turners has its meeting catered by Fiesta on Wheels, complete with piñatas stuffed with bookmarks. (Browse an excerpt.)
Summer Reading darkens in tone as Wolitzer sweeps us back into Angela's past, to the love affair responsible for her present seclusion. Wolitzer also cleverly investigates reading's fallout on three women from different classes: Lissy, the socialite; her housekeeper, who picks up a discarded paperback of Evan S. Connell's novel Mrs. Bridge; and of course Angela herself. Like Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club, a fun novel with a similar premise from a few years ago, Wolitzer's Summer Reading wittily plays off the plots and styles of the great books under discussion, culminating in shimmering summer fairy-tale endings for all the characters we readers have come to root for. Recklessness, Temptation and Regret A Rueful Shoulder-Shrug of a Novel
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