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Cape May


Cape May

In Chip Cheek’s debut novel, the year is 1957, and newlyweds Henry and Effie have just arrived in breezy, beautiful Cape May, New Jersey, for their two-week honeymoon. While the two grew up together in Georgia, Effie has visited Cape May every summer and loves the social scene and packed beaches. Unfortunately, they have arrived in the middle of September; the deserted beaches, restaurants and houses depress Effie, and she demands that they head home early. When they run into a glamorous old frenemy named Clara, however, they decide to stay. What follows is a glittering, gin-soaked bacchanal that will forever change Henry and Effie’s marriage.

What initially seems like a quick beach read quickly turns into something much darker as Henry and Effie befriend and become equal parts horrified and dazzled by their fellow vacationers. One thing that immediately sets CAPE MAY apart is its characters: none are particularly likable, though they all read a bit like a celebrity gossip magazine. In Effie we have a big fish in a little pond. Back home she is the mayor’s daughter, but is still the twangy southern girl to her Cape May friends. Henry is more relatable, at least at first. He is wide-eyed and virginal, and hopelessly in awe of his precious wife. At the same time, he possesses a certain aimlessness and naïveté that can be more frustrating than endearing.

"Cheek is a solid writer, that much is certain. His portrayal of Cape May feels like a character in and of itself, and I am sure I will not be alone in saying that I craved the crisp coolness of a gin and tonic while reading this book."

Henry and Effie’s friends for the summer, Clara and Max, are a bit more interesting, if not more likable. Clara is big in every sense of the word: body, personality and hospitality. She married for wealth and has an agreement with her husband that allows her to throw lavish, gin-fueled parties and sleep with her friend/lover, Max, a writer. Rounding out the group is Alma, Max’s aloof, brooding half-sister, to whom Henry feels an instant attraction. It is at one of these parties that Henry and Effie become acquainted with the group, and the five begin a friendship that lasts the rest of their honeymoon and beyond, as they turn the abandoned town of Cape May into their own private playground.

Over the next week, the gang goes sailing, picnicking and frolicking on the beach, all while Henry and Effie begin to adjust to married life. The two are young enough to be new to alcohol and its effects, and they find that Clara’s gin emboldens them to make love in new ways and in new places, though they still seem shy with one another when the sun is up. But as they become more comfortable with Clara, her friends and each other, their desires begin to deepen --- both for one another and for the people around them. When Effie falls ill, their careful rhythm falls out of step and Henry finds himself slipping into new habits that will change their marriage forever.

If I had to sum up CAPE MAY in three words, they would be sex, gin and debauchery. This is a steamy novel, no doubt about it, and the unlikable characters make the sensuality seem that much more depraved and reckless in a “can’t look away” kind of way. I cannot say for sure whether I liked any of the characters or supported their actions, but I could not stop reading.

Cheek is a solid writer, that much is certain. His portrayal of Cape May feels like a character in and of itself, and I am sure I will not be alone in saying that I craved the crisp coolness of a gin and tonic while reading this book. I loved reading about deserted Cape May and its idiosyncracies --- unlocked lavish mansions filled with surprising decorations and tightly secured smaller homes full of riches. As a New Jersey native, I enjoyed learning more about the history of the town, which has always been a favorite of mine. Cheek’s writing is atmospheric, and his setting is positively tangible, but I wanted a bit more in terms of character development. It is one thing to write unlikable characters --- a trope that I love in books --- but the denizens of Cape May felt flat and unmotivated. Henry was perhaps the most developed, but he was so hopelessly naïve that I struggled to relate to him and understand his decisions.

CAPE MAY is a quick, fun read, and the erotica is nicely metered out --- but ultimately it feels a bit inconsequential. Though Cheek does a terrific job of relating the discomfort and shyness of newlyweds, the juxtaposition of these tender moments against the raw sensuality that appears on later pages feels too jarring without stronger characters to back it up. As much as I love a quick read, this is one book that I would have liked to see a bit more fleshed out.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on May 3, 2019

Cape May
by Chip Cheek