For Miranda Schuyler, the protagonist of Beatriz Williams’s The Summer Wives, Winthrop Island is more than an obscure, elusive place off the coast of Connecticut. From the moment of her first arrival in 1951—on the eve of her mother’s wedding to one of the island’s wealthy summer residents—this insular community draws her into its coded world of secrets, gossip, and cross-cultural tensions.
Right away, Miranda learns from her new stepsister, Isobel, that she will need to learn a subtle-seeming but airtight set of rules. This code will govern her behavior and her relationships with a range of island personalities, including Joseph, the handsome, thoughtful son of the lighthouse keeper. Through Isobel’s love of risk-taking and her own ambiguous bond with Joseph, Miranda finds herself lured into myriad power struggles among her glamorous new family’s moneyed crowd, as well as the struggles of people like Joseph—who comes from one of the island’s working-class Portuguese families.
The novel follows Miranda’s entanglement with Winthrop Island over many years, both before and after a pivotal disaster which lands Joseph in prison and transforms her from the community’s favorite newcomer into a scandalous troublemaker in social exile. No matter how far she travels, though, her business with Winthrop remains unfinished. At the outset of the novel’s main action, which takes place in the late 1960s, Miranda learns that Joseph has escaped from prison, his whereabouts a mystery. After years spent building a life elsewhere, Miranda returns to Winthrop to claim her place there, whether its refined coterie wants her back or not.
Williams plays up the novel’s many allusions to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, including Miranda’s name, which was given to her by her father, an art teacher. After his death in World War II, Miranda takes on his love of Shakespeare, growing up to become a well-known actress. And Winthrop Island, with its perilous surrounding waters and mysterious inhabitants, is meant to evoke the strange magic of Prospero’s island. More than a backdrop of lighthouses and lobstermen, Winthrop emerges as a vibrant presence. For all its tangled plot and crowd of characters, the novel’s most intriguing element turns out to be the island itself.
Deep cultural contradictions persist between Winthrop’s wealthy summer residents (known as the Families) and the year-round Portuguese inhabitants who own local businesses, run lobster boats, and clean the summer houses. The contrasts between these populations form the most interesting tensions in The Summer Wives. A local woman named Bianca, who works at the island general store, observes these differences in terms of how the shelves are stocked, in particular the prepackaged and unadventurous food the summer crowd prefers—especially canned soup, to Bianca’s bafflement: “She prefers the soups Tia Maria makes from scratch and simmers all day in an iron pot on the stove, full of herbs and vegetables and shellfish, whatever’s fresh from the sea, but the Families like their food bland, apparently. Bland and stale and rich, just like themselves.”
The Summer Wives spins a memorable world to surround its complex plot of family intrigue and long-buried secrets. Miranda must navigate this peculiar environment to get to her own past’s wilder truth, where it waits at the water’s edge.
Emily Choate holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction has been published in Shenandoah, The Florida Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Double Dealer, and her nonfiction has appeared in Yemassee, Late Night Library, and elsewhere. She lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.
Tagged: Book Reviews, Fiction