Wauregan Island, just off the shore of Long Island, is the kind of exclusive, idyllic summer place those of us stuck in cities for the summer might dream about. The modest houses on Wauregan have been owned by the same wealthy families for generations, and the summer community is strong, with social gatherings for the adults and even a sports program for children. Although everyone on the island is clearly part of the same privileged class, part of the charm of the place is that people don't flaunt their wealth --- the women wear the same evening gowns several summers running, and virtually everyone goes barefoot from the moment the ferry from the mainland touches down.
"[R]eaders will eventually be caught up in Beard's thoughtful portrayal of life after war and her careful consideration of how all these families --- even those whose husbands returned home --- remained ever changed."
But this summer at Wauregan feels a bit different, a little bittersweet. It's 1948, and many of the men who had been overseas fighting have finally returned to their families --- although few families have remained unchanged by the war. The place feels especially different to Helen Wadsworth, whose husband Arthur was declared missing in action several years earlier during an intelligence operation in France. Helen and her 14-year-old son Jack are trying to make the best of their summer together, but the question of what happened to Arthur constantly haunts both of them. Helen is lonely for male companionship, too, and Jack longs for a father figure who can help him repair his father's sailboat.
Soon enough, there are two men both vying to fill both roles. One is Frank Hartman, Arthur's best friend and OSS partner, as well as Jack's godfather. Frank has been looking out for Helen and Jack ever since Arthur's disappearance --- which Frank may or may not know the details of. He is handsome and confident, and reminds Helen strongly of her missing husband. But then there's Peter, the young aspiring architect whose grandfather owns the neighboring cottage. Peter has returned from the war deeply scarred, accompanied by the K9 unit German Shepherd, Max, who saved his life in the war. Helen is both attracted to and sympathetic toward the handsome, vulnerable young man, and becomes especially fond of him when she sees how much he and Max both care for Jack.
As the summer wears on, Helen struggles to balance her feelings for both men with her loyalty to Arthur, especially when she learns new information about what may have happened to Arthur in the war. But Helen is not the only one struggling --- her friends and neighbors also have their own conflicts and uncertainties, as they work to reconcile their husbands' wartime past with their civilian present.
Although Patricia Beard is known for her nonfiction writing in books and magazines, A CERTAIN SUMMER is her first novel. For the most part, it is highly successful, especially her imaginative depiction of this unique (fictional) place and her portrayal of the burgeoning relationship between Jack and Max. At times, the exposition (especially in the opening chapters) is handled a bit awkwardly, but readers eventually will be caught up in Beard's thoughtful portrayal of life after war and her careful consideration of how all these families --- even those whose husbands returned home --- remained ever changed.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 7, 2013