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The Lost Summers of Newport


The Lost Summers of Newport

From the bestselling trio of Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White --- affectionately dubbed “Team W” by their adoring fans --- comes THE LOST SUMMERS OF NEWPORT, a centuries-spanning novel set among the famous summer mansions of Newport, Rhode Island.

From the mid-19th century to the early 20th, Newport became home first to wealthy Southern plantation owners, then to wealthy northerners, soon marking itself as the place to be for Gilded Age businessmen, heiresses and even celebrities. Williams, Willig and White portray a starkly different version of gilded Newport, starting their story in September 2019, when Andie Figuero, the host of the popular reality show “Makeover Mansion,” descends upon Sprague Hall, a crumbling mansion owned first by a robber baron, then by an old-money Knickerbocker family, and, finally, by the Spragues, a new-money family whose rapid rise to wealth was wrapped in a glittery facade and a fair amount of scandal.

Andie has been tasked with renovating three major rooms in the Italian Renaissance-style mansion. But her hopes of returning it to its former glory have been dashed by her mentor and producer, Marc Albertson, who is facing increasing pressure from the network to “sex up” the show. Instead of digging into the history of a home and finding a way to unite its past and its present, Andie is more frequently asked to dig into a family’s history and air their dirty laundry for audiences who care less about history and more about clickbait.

"Reading THE LOST SUMMERS OF NEWPORT means putting your faith in the writers to drop clues when necessary, measure out their reveals perfectly, and --- somehow --- distract you with the details and character arcs so thoroughly that you can’t see their jaw-dropping sleights of hand."

It’s clear that Andie has her work cut out for her as the owner’s grandchildren, Luke and Hadley, seem to be at odds over the future of Sprague Hall and their grandmother’s wishes. Although their grandmother, Lucky Sprague, occupies its upper floors, Andie is given firm directions to never seek her out or speak to her, which only increases her curiosity about the home’s decay while providing a firm obstacle to impressing her producer and keeping her show alive.

Jumping back to the summer of 1957, the authors introduce us to Lucky herself: the Italian granddaughter of the mansion’s then-owner, American-born Princess Maybelle di Conti. Having fled Mussolini’s Italy, Lucky and her grandmother, Nonna, are outsiders at Sprague Hall, despite Maybelle’s ownership of the mansion and her lineage as the heiress of the Sprague family fortune. Beautiful, cold Lucky is married to Stuyvesant Sprague, the alcoholic and adulterous son of her grandmother’s stepfamily, securing her ties to Sprague mansion, but also trapping her in a tumultuous, loveless relationship.

With inflation and taxes rising, the Newport mansions, which once “had a single perfect moment in history, and then the hour was past,” have begun to fall into disarray, and the wealthy families who once hosted lavish parties and celebrity guests have started organizing charity events and work focused on preserving their beloved but now unaffordable homes. But with the Sprague family patriarch, Dudley, a hateful, jealous man, ranting from his deathbed, Lucky is made privy to a dark family secret that threatens her safety and security at the mansion.

Taking the narrative back even further to the summer of 1899, the height of Newport’s Gilded Age, we once again view the Sprague family from an outsider’s perspective: that of Ellen Daniels, a young woman who has been hired to teach 17-year-old Maybelle, the heiress to the Sprague fortune, to sing. Maybelle’s greedy stepbrother and guardian, John, has set into motion her marriage to an Italian prince, with the ulterior motive of securing his own wealth and standing in society. As Ellen comes to adore quiet, soft-spoken and eager to please (or, rather, terrified of displeasing) Maybelle and meets the prince alongside her, she worries that the family’s control of young, impressionable Maybelle will prove damaging to her, even while she fights to protect Maybelle from the gossipy, backstabbing social climbers of Newport’s lesser families (and lesser-known relatives of famous families).

At the same time, Ellen is hiding her own secrets, and securing Maybelle’s marriage may bury them, especially if she is asked to accompany Maybelle to Italy, leaving her tragic past behind once and for all. But Newport, for all its glitz and glamour, is a treacherous, fickle place where the gossip mill never ceases and allies as well as enemies can be bought, traded and sold. Ellen will have to keep her wits and heart about her if she is to save Maybelle from tragedy and protect herself as well. With so much riding on the marriage, tragedy and heartbreak seem inevitable. And with the crumbling present-day Sprague Hall fresh in readers’ minds, it's obvious that while Maybelle did wed her prince, there’s far more to the story than a fairy tale ending.

In any multi-perspective work, readers will have a favorite main character, and though it is difficult to choose one here, I found Lucky to be the most beautifully crafted. Perhaps it is because we see so much of her, from the young, ambitious wife to the sharp-witted, fierce old matriarch, but something about her expertly drawn character --- always motivated, always plotting her next move --- had me turning pages faster and faster in hopes of a glimpse of her. That we get to see her beginnings in Maybelle and her romances helps sharpen the portrait of her while exemplifying the strong matrilineal arcs so often found in the works of Williams, Willig and White. (Of course, I adored Ellen and Andie as well!)

As always, Team W lays a strong, weight-bearing foundation with their choice of setting. That Newport has undergone so many total transformations makes it the perfect setting for a centuries-spanning work of historical fiction, but even then, they do not rely on the setting to do the heavy lifting for them. Their attention to detail, their gorgeous, vivid descriptions, and their tender care for the history behind their work is on full display here. Although you’ll find yourself frantically Googling images of the Newport mansions and the gowns worn in them, you really won’t need to, as the authors have built a world that not only leaps off the page, but welcomes you in with a crisp gin drink and a balmy sea breeze.

But of course, as any Team W reader knows, it’s their characters --- and the meticulously plotted twists that tie them together --- that make their books truly unforgettable. There is a single, shimmering thread tying together the lives of Andie, Lucky and Ellen, and though it’s tempting to be on the lookout for clues about it, the glory of reading a Team W novel is that you don’t have to be. Reading THE LOST SUMMERS OF NEWPORT means putting your faith in the writers to drop clues when necessary, measure out their reveals perfectly, and --- somehow --- distract you with the details and character arcs so thoroughly that you can’t see their jaw-dropping sleights of hand.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on May 20, 2022

The Lost Summers of Newport
by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White