“The summer when I was thirteen years old changed everything for me. Looking back on it now, I can fill in the gaps with what I learned later, but at the time it seemed like a story unto itself, and that is the way I want to tell it.”
So begins Ursula DeYoung’s novel of a family coming together and breaking apart over the course of the summer of 1928. Shorecliff is the stately manor house of the Hatfield family, situated on the rocky coast of Maine. Our narrator, 13-year-old Richard Killing, leads us through the events that brought his family to that one spot, that one summer.
Richard’s mother, Caroline, was one of five Hatfield daughters and two brothers --- Kurt, the handsome heroic brother, and Harold, who had been killed in the Great War. Richard’s Aunt Rose laments the fact that the entire family has never been at Shorecliff at the same time and decided that this particular summer was the “perfect opportunity to remedy the situation.” Not only would all the cousins be in attendance, which utterly delighted only child Richard, but it meant that his gruff and serious father would not be, staying behind in New York City to work --- a fact that more than pleased him and, dare he say it, his mother, too.
"SHORECLIFF is a classic coming-of-age story told through the eyes of a naïve young boy who doesn’t fully grasp half of what was unfolding around him until many years later."
So the five Hatfield women, with their corresponding husbands and the 11 children between them, ranging in age from 13 to early 20s, and Uncle Kurt descend upon Shorecliff for what they think will be a peaceful respite from their harried lives. The best laid plans of mice and men, as they say, usually go horribly off the rails.
Having that many people under one roof, especially if more than half of those people are hormonal teenagers, can be a recipe for disaster. Maiden Aunt Edie immediately comments “This house…is primed for incest” --- an odd statement, to be sure, but not an untrue one. There does seem to be certain flirtations and sexual tension between a few of the cousins. Tom is the handsome Harvard student who is the object of most everyone’s attention, even young Richard’s, who idolizes his devil-may-care charm and style. During one of the prerequisite croquet matches on the lawn, a young farm girl from down the road named Lorelei Stephenson happens upon their game and asks to join in the fun.
It’s instantly clear that the lovely young Lorelei only has eyes for Tom and he for her, which sets off some minor jealousies among a few of his female cousins, namely Isabella and Francesca, who resent Lorelei for taking Tom’s attention off them. Tom and Lorelei spend many romantic hours walking along the jagged cliffs and along the wooded lane that connects Shorecliff to the Stephensons’ farm.
But this summer would prove to be unlike any other. Along with the whiff of adolescent sexuality in the air, the odd flirtations between cousins, and the budding romance between Tom and Lorelei, there was the near drowning of the two young cousins, both named Delia. There was also time spent by Richard, enraptured by Uncle Kurt’s war stories, which left him with horrible night terrors, where he could be heard screaming, “Hennessey! Hennessey!” at all hours. Richard wasn’t sure what exactly happened to Uncle Kurt’s friend during the war, but he was “convinced after that night that Hennessey had died an awful death and that Uncle Kurt felt responsible for it.” There was also the revelation that Francesca’s mother, the free-spirited Loretta, was involved in a scandalous affair with a wealthy tycoon who quickly cast her aside when news of their dalliance hit the papers.
SHORECLIFF is a classic coming-of-age story told through the eyes of a naïve young boy who doesn’t fully grasp half of what was unfolding around him until many years later. Part A SEPARATE PEACE, part I CAPTURE THE CASTLE, it’s the story of a momentous summer when illusions are dashed, family ties are tested, and secrets come spilling out. DeYoung effectively demonstrates how certain events, no matter how big or small, can imprint the rest of our lives forever. As Richard looks back, he thinks, “That is what I want to remember of my last summer at Shorecliff --- not the…tears and the terrifying emotions that ransacked our hearts, but the many moments in our jokes and games when the sunlight framed for an instant one shout, one smile, one off-kilter glance.”
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on August 2, 2013