Every summer, newspapers publish articles on summer reading. It’s their job to tell us it’s acceptable to read whatever tops the best-seller list, and if it’s Fifty Shades or Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, they’re stuck with it. Of course they also sneak in recommendations of good books, but the tradition is to pretend the reader will spend the whole vacation poolside drinking piña coladas. (We went to Hawarden, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska. No piña coladas in sight.)
Here’s a blast from the past: if you like light fiction, and I very much do, try a “beach book” from a different era. Though I’ve never been involved with theater, I am fascinated by novels about actors who quit their jobs and move to a house by the sea, or take a seaside vacation. Did you know there is such a genre? There is! My favorite is Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, a Gothic novel in which Lucy, an out-of-work actress, goes on vacation to Corfu, saves a dolphin, and inadvertently becomes involved with a mystery and two men. Two men are better than one–no, what am I saying?
I also recommend Iris Murdoch’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea, The Sea, an engrossing psychological novel in which the mad Charles, a retired director and actor, moves to a house by the sea, keeps a mad diary, and becomes obsessed with solitude. He also becomes obsessed with his old girlfriend, Hartley, whom he meets in the village. Other women with whom he has been romantically involved show up, too: he doesn’t want guests, but they keep arriving. This is one of Murdoch’s “typically” weird, intense novels, if any of her fiction can be considered “typical.”
D. E. Stevenson’s The House on the Cliff may not be quite in this league, but it features my required beach-actor motifs, and I loved every minute of it. The heroine, Elfrida Ware, is a struggling actress who isn’t very good at her job, and when she inherits the family house, Mountain Cliff, she quits her job and moves there. Nobody recommends this. She doesn’t have any money. She had never even visited the house. But her late mother, who had been disowned for marrying an actor, loved the house, and had told Elfrida every detail.
Elfrida falls in love with Mountain Cliff. She and a live-in couple, who fortunately want to stay in the house and work part-time for free, rescue the garden, fix up the house, and start raising pigs. She learns about the tides after a dangerous experience, and narrowly escapes death. Her neighbors are helpful. And she also has two men: one, a reckless, glamorous actor she had a crush on before she left London, who invites himself to visit with his son; and Ronnie, a lively lawyer who helps her find the money to support Mountain Cliff and much prefers the house to London.
Whom would you marry?
Utterly charming. A very plain style, but it clips right along. Here’s a passage:
Elfrida was very sleepy next morning–she was not used to late hours–but she felt better when she had her bath and she was ready for breakfast at nine. Glen was late; he came down looking rather cross. Actors are never at their best in the morning, so Elfrida was not surprised; she told him to help himself to grapefruit or bacon and eggs or whatever he would like and did not bother him.”
Nothing fancy, but since I want to live her life, I appreciate every detail.