The perfect beach book combines maximum readability with a story you can dip in and out of it without losing the thread, built sturdily enough to accommodate distractions by sandcastle builders, thieving seagulls, and the soothing, sleep-inducing beat of the waves. Here are 10 books you should take with you everywhere this summer, even on those days when the “beach” is the sidelines of a kiddie pool, or a bench next to a rain puddle. Happy summer reading:
Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple
Bernadette is a brilliant, reclusive former architect whose crippling misanthropy has alienated her from her husband and her work. When she disappears without warning just before a family trip to Antarctica, her grieving daughter, refusing to believe she’s really gone, compiles the book you’re reading, an epistolary novel that bursts at its seams with email exchanges, IM conversations, and other pieces of unconventional storytelling. The book is especially brilliant when skewering the upscale-granola lifestyle Bernadette abandoned, where her daughter’s school grades kids on a scale of “Surpasses Excellence” to “Working Towards Excellence,” and image-obsessed neighbors hire “blackberry abatement specialists” instead of, you know, gardeners.
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
Ursula Todd is born on a cold night in 1910, and dies moments later. Ursula Todd is born on a cold night in 1910, and dies years later. Or decades later. Ursula lives again and again, always snapping back after death to her first breath in 1910. She acrrues shadowy bits of foreknowledge in each life that shape the way she lives thereafter, helping her to dodge old tragedies and putting her in the way of new ones. Taken together, her lifetimes form a gorgeous, tempestuous portrait of early 20th-century England and, most indelibly, wartime Europe. You can binge-read a lifetime while waiting for your piña colada to arrive (stop making us jealous), and another while you drink it.
The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd
Raised by family servant Rosaleen since her mother’s death ten years ago (her father’s more tyrant than parent), 14-year-old Lily harbors a secret hope of finding clues about her mother’s past in a place called Tiburon, which was scribbled on the back of a cross the woman left behind. It’s the summer of ’64 in the American south, and after African American Rosaleen is beaten and hospitalized during an attempt to vote, she and Lily finally hit the road to Tiburon. There they meet a powerful family of African American women beekeepers, and there Kidd tips the scales of Lily’s hardscrabble life, filling it with moments of magic and joy. You’ll be rooting for her to find her place in the world.
The Dinner, by Herman Koch
Two couples meet for dinner in an upscale restaurant in Amsterdam. As the evening wears on and tensions escalate, we slowly learn the reason for the meeting and the relationship between the diners, and plummet deeper into the psyche of the narrator, a middle-class husband and father whose inadvertent self-revelations grow increasingly dark as the book progresses. This one will chill you as effectively as a glass of ice water.
Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
In 1962 a beautiful American actress, Dee, sojourns on a tiny Italian island, where she meets the young innkeeper who will remain haunted by her memory for the rest of his life. Half a century later, he travels to Los Angeles to find her. His crusade, enabled by fading movie mogul Michael Deane—who once made his name on the set of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, and who had a hand in deciding Dee’s fate back in 1962—is the novel’s heart, but Walter’s rambling, open-armed tale also encompasses Dee’s hard-living musician son, the dodgy personal life of Deane’s compassionate assistant, and interludes with the great Burton himself.
The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern
Celia and Marco are two young magicians, trained from childhood by eccentric, powerful guardians to serve as pawns in a game of magical oneupmanship that’s raged since before their birth. Their battleground is the mysterious Le Cirque des Rêves, a roving entertainment full of all the wonders author Morgenstern can unpack from her fabulously fertile brain. If you’re the kind of person who’s never met a locked door you didn’t want to look behind, you’ll get lost in this nocturnal romance, and wish you could join the ranks of the rêveurs, red-scarved connoisseurs who follow the circus like some used to follow the Dead.
Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes
After losing her café job in her tiny hometown, Lou is hired as a home caregiver for Will, a former jet-setter and bon vivant left severely disabled after an accident. Their professional relationship slowly becomes something more, as she struggles to show him that his limited life is still worth living—and learns in the process that her own small existence could use some expanding.
A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
In Egan’s novel of linked short stories, any supporting character, no matter how small, may end up the star of their own story down the line. Her tales wind through and around the lives of these producers, parents, burnouts, suburbanites, globetrotters, madmen, and children, taking root in L.A., in Africa, in a third-world dictatorship, in past and future versions of New York. If you haven’t yet read this endlessly entertaining, guttingly great Pulitzer Prize winner, consider this your wakeup call.
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler
One of the most glittering, beguiling love stories in American letters, the union of F. Scott Fitzgerald and southern belle Zelda Sayre ended in burnout and tragedy, but damned if they didn’t have fun along the way. This fictionalized account of their courtship and life follows Zelda from her meeting with Fitzgerald at a dance, through his champagne-bubble rise to fame, their years as Parisian expats, and the couple’s slow succumbing to the demons of alcoholism and poor mental health. It’s a beautifully researched must-read for anyone entranced by the Lost Generation.
A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki
While walking on the beach near her home on a remote Canadian island, middle-aged novelist Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the shore. In it, a painstakingly protected, unconventional diary written by Nao, a suicidal Japanese teen. In it she describes her own brutal, bullied history, and records her desire to tell the story of her mystical great-grandmother, a centenarian and Buddhist nun, before taking her own life. As Ruth reads, she’s drawn deeply into Nao’s tale, and grows increasingly fearful for her fate. Ozeki’s Tale is a gorgeous, absorbing argument for the power of storytelling.