Thirty-year-old Charlotte Wheelwright seems to have at last found her niche, running an organic gardening business on the island of Nantucket, thanks in large part to her spry grandmother Nona, who donated a portion of land on the family’s seaside compound to get Charlotte started. Though Charlotte’s skill with plants is bringing her success, cultivating something deeper with people—particularly her handsome neighbor Coop—might be more of a challenge.
Now the entire Wheelwright clan is making its annual summer pilgrimage to the homestead, including Charlotte’s mother, Helen, who brings a heavy heart as she confronts a betrayal that threatens her sense of place and her sense of self. Bringing together three generations of strong-willed women, each wrestling with life-changing decisions, Nancy Thayer’s luminous novel shows that no matter where life’s path may lead, love always finds a way back home.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.13(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.79(d)|
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Charlotte had already picked the lettuces and set them, along with the bunches of asparagus tied with twine and the mason jars of fresh-faced pansies, out on the table in a shaded spot at the end of the drive. In July, she would have to pay someone to man the farm stand, but in June not so many customers were around, and those who did come by found a table holding a wicker basket with a small whiteboard propped next to the basket. In colored chalk, the prices for the day’s offerings were listed, and a note: Everything picked fresh today. Please leave the money in the basket. Thanks and blessings from Beach Grass Garden. She hadn’t been cheated yet. She knew the customers thought this way of doing business was quaint, harkening back to a simpler time, and they appreciated it. Perhaps it helped them believe the world was still a safe and honest place.
The day was overcast but hoeing was hot work and she had been up since four-thirty. Charlotte collapsed against the trunk of an apple tree, uncapped her water bottle, and took a long delicious drink. Nantucket had the best water on the planet: sweet, pure, and clear. It was shady in this overgrown spot, so she lifted off the floppy straw hat she wore, in addition to a heavy slathering of sunblock, and sighed in appreciation as a light breeze stirred her hair.
She couldn’t linger, she had too much to do. She took another long drink of water, listened to her stomach rumble, and considered returning to the house for an early lunch.
When she heard the voices, she almost jumped.
People were talking on Bill Cooper’s side of the fence, just behind the green tangle of wild grapevines. Hunky Bill Cooper and his gorgeous girlfriend. From the tense rumble of Coop’s voice and Miranda’s shrill whine, they weren’t happy.
“Come on, Mir, don’t be that way.” Bill’s tone was placating but rimmed with an edge of exasperation.
“What way would that be?” A sob caught in Miranda’s throat. “Truthful?”
The moment had definitely passed, Charlotte decided, when she could clear her throat, jump up, and call out a cheerful hello. Vague snuffling sounds informed her that Bill’s dogs, Rex and Regina, were nearby, nosing through the undergrowth. She thought about the layout of Bill’s land: along the other side of the fence grew his everlasting raspberry bushes. The berries wouldn’t be ripe yet, so Bill and Miranda must be taking the dogs for a walk as they often did. She was glad the berry bushes grew next to the fence, their prickly canes forming a barrier between Bill’s land and Nona’s. A tangle of grasses massed around barberry bushes was wedged against the fence, and then there were the tree trunks. They would pass by any moment now. She would keep very quiet. Otherwise it would be too embarrassing, even though she had a right and a reason to be here.
“I never lied to you, Miranda. I told you I wasn’t ready for a long-term commitment, especially not when you’re in New York all winter.”
“You could come visit me.”
“I don’t like cities,” Bill argued mildly.
“Well, that’s pathetic. And sleeping with that—that slut—is pathetic.” Miranda was striding ahead of Bill. She cried out, “Rex, you stupid, stupid dog! You almost tripped me.”
“Mir, simmer down.” Bill sounded irritable, at the end of his patience.
Miranda didn’t reply but hurried into the orchard of ancient apple trees. Bill followed, crashing through the brush. Charlotte could hear a few more words—I’m not kidding! It’s over, Bill!—then she heard the hum of their voices but no words, and then they were gone.
“Gosh,” Charlotte whispered to herself.
Charlotte had had a crush on Bill Cooper for years. Coop was a hunk, but so easygoing and funny that when you talked with him you could almost forget how handsome he was. She seldom saw him, even though he lived right next door. Of course, “right next door” was a general term. Nona’s property consisted of ten acres with fifty feet of waterfront on Polpis Harbor, and the Coopers’ land was about the same size. With all the plantings, you couldn’t see one house from the other, even in winter when all the leaves had fallen.
Like the Wheelwrights, the Coopers mostly summered on the island, the Wheelwrights coming from Boston, the Coopers from New York. Eons ago, when they were all little kids, Coop had played a lot with Charlotte’s brother Oliver, even though Oliver was younger, because Coop was an only child, and the two families got together several times over the summer for cocktails or barbecues. Then came the years when they rarely saw each other, everyone off in college and backpacking in summer instead of coming to the island.
Coop lived in California for a while, but three years ago his parents moved to Florida and Coop moved into the island house, telling everyone he wanted to live here permanently. He ran a computer software business from his nineteen-sixties wandering ranch house, mixed his plasma TV and Bose CD player in with his family’s summery bamboo and teak furniture, and was content. Mostly he allowed his land to grow wild, except for a small crop of butter-and-sugar corn famous for its sweetness. At the end of the summer, he held a party outdoors, a clambake with fresh corn, cold beer, and icy champagne.
Charlotte had seen Coop and Miranda about town now and then, when she went in to catch a movie or pick up a prescription at the pharmacy. It was obvious why any man would fall in love with Miranda Fellows. She was a dark-eyed beauty hired to run Luxe et Volupté, an upscale clothing shop on Centre Street. She was British, and her accent thrilled the young, beautiful, rich, social-climbing set, men as well as women. She was such a snob, and Coop was such a genuine good guy, they seemed like an odd pair, but Charlotte hadn’t allowed herself romantic thoughts about Coop.
She hadn’t allowed herself romantic thoughts about any man for quite a long while.
Her own move to Nantucket had not been a lighthearted, impulsive act. She’d thought about it a lot. She’d searched her soul. She came to Nantucket to get away from men—at least from one particular man—and to somehow balance with good acts the wrong she’d done. Her organic garden was her own self-imposed penance and repentance, and she’d been diligent and hardworking and nunlike for three years. She didn’t know when her penance would be over . . . but she knew she would find out when the time came. Until then, she forced herself to work hard, every day.
She stood up and stretched. On this June day, the sky was overcast, but Charlotte wore a long-sleeved T-shirt, a pair of striped bib overalls, and the floppy straw hat. She’d been burned too many times after carelessly exposing her pale skin to the sun. She’d learned her lesson.
Gardening seemed endlessly full of lessons, ones that had to be learned through personal experience instead of research and memorization. She liked that about working in a garden—the directness of it, the intimacy. It was so personal. No wonder people talked to their plants. Sometimes Charlotte sang to hers. And there was one stubborn wild rose, a rogue at the far end of the rows of winter onions, that had proudly kept a few green leaves all through the frigid winter. Charlotte actually visited it, touching its chilled leaves and whispering to it to cheer it on. When a failing plant began to thrive, she felt it as a personal victory; she believed it was her good work that somehow brought about good results.
Now she scrutinized the long rows of plants shining beneath the sun. At the far end, Jorge, her part-time employee, was plucking weeds and tossing them into a bucket. Jorge was a good, fast worker, and she was lucky to have him, because hand weeding was backbreaking work and absolutely necessary for an organic garden. There were many positive aspects about growing lettuces on the island—lettuce liked sandy soil and cool weather, and Nantucket had plenty of both, even in the summer. And since her lettuces were harvested while they were still young, they were seldom in the soil long enough to develop insect and disease problems. But weeds were her nemesis. By U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, chemical weed killers couldn’t be used in an organic garden, and Charlotte didn’t want to use them. The first year, she had tried to do everything herself, the seeding, planting, weeding, watering, and picking, in addition to taking the lettuces and other veggies to the various posh restaurants that would pay her prices for fresh locally grown produce, and at night she’d tried to keep up with the necessary paperwork for taxes and for her records. She just hadn’t been able to do it all. Fortunately, Nona’s landscaper, who had tended her formal garden regularly for years, recommended Jorge, and Jorge had saved the day.
Jorge was weeding now and would weed most of the day. Charlotte ran down her mental list of duties. She wanted to plant more lettuces and arugula and, if she had time, pot the double impatiens people bought the instant they were available. She walked back to her work shed, trying hard not to think about Coop.
She would think about her family. That would provide sufficient distraction!
Three years ago, she’d presented her plan at Family Meeting and no one, not her brothers and not her cousins, had objected to Charlotte’s use of the roadside end of Nona’s land for a trial market garden. Even when she had the ground rototilled so that the familiar bronze tones of wild brush and grasses were transformed into shining rows of dark sandy earth, even when dump trucks unloaded good soil and manure that smelled to high heaven, even when men came to build an unattractive wire fence around the garden to keep out deer, rabbits, and other wildlife, and especially not when Charlotte contributed sweet fresh strawberries or crisp lettuces to the family meals, did anyone in the family object.
But last year Charlotte had made a profit of four thousand dollars, and suddenly everyone—well, her aunt and uncle and her cousins—was having fits of jealousy, claiming that Nona was giving more to Charlotte than to the rest of them. Which was crazy of them, because to them four thousand dollars was just nothing.
It was not the four thousand dollars, really, Charlotte knew, that was the issue. It was the whole property, land and house and beach, worth several million, that everyone wanted—and, rightfully, had a claim to. Nona was almost ninety; she couldn’t live forever, even though everyone wished she might and Nona herself seemed to think it possible. Nona had two living children—Charlotte’s father, Worth, and his sister, Grace—two in-laws—Charlotte’s mother, Helen, and Grace’s husband, Kellogg—six grandchildren, and—from Mandy, Grace’s daughter—two great-grandchildren. Nona had not, would not, disclose the details of her will, even though at each annual Family Meeting her children pressed her. When the time is right, she would respond, and it didn’t matter if they claimed to be insulted, she wouldn’t change her mind.
The three acres of land constituting Charlotte’s garden didn’t belong to Charlotte. There had never been any kind of arrangement like that, and in fact Charlotte had insisted on paying a token rent to her grandmother for the use of the land. But no one in the family had ever expected her to stick with gardening; they had all assumed that sooner or later Charlotte would think up some more appealing project and wander away, letting the acreage revert to its natural state.
Well, she was proving them wrong. Her grueling, dogged physical labor had paid off in unexpected ways. No one had expected her garden to be a success; she could understand that completely. She’d never been dedicated to anything before.
What People are Saying About This
"Nancy Thayer has a deep and masterly understanding of love and friendship, of where the two complement and where they collide." -Elin Hilderbrand
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation with Nancy Thayer
Random House Reader’s Circle: Where did you get the idea for this story?
Nancy Thayer: I’m fascinated by families. I grew up in a middle-class family in Kansas, and it’s taken me a long time to get over believing that “richer is better.” Living on Nantucket has given me the opportunity to see so many idyllic summer houses and to know some exceptionally fortunate, golden families. It’s been a revelation to me to discover that these families have secrets, envies, sins, and sorrows, just like everyone else. Why was I surprised? Still, I wanted to capture the truth of the imperfect lives lived in these perfect summer houses—as in all homes.
In a way, I’ve waited years for just the right moment to write this book. As a child, I pored over my father’s World War II album and saw photos of him in Germany, both during the war and after it was over, when he was stationed in Bremerhaven. On his desk at home, he had a wooden nameplate: first lieutenant w. s. wright. He told me a German friend had carved it for him. I said, “A German friend?” He explained that countries go to war; individuals can be friends. I’ve always remembered that. I felt the time was right to write about a family that loves and accepts its flawed and imperfect relatives—because we are all flawed and imperfect. I was thrilled to use some of his letters to my mother as Herb’s letters to Anne in Summer House. I wish he were still alive to know this.
RHRC: Summer House is told from the points of view of three generations of Wheelwright women—Nona’s, Helen’s, and Charlotte’s. Where did you get the inspiration for these very different women? Who was the easiest to write about?
NT: Nona is much like my mother, Jane. Certainly I’ve always treasured photos of her as a young woman during the 1940s. She got to wear glamorous little hats with veils! Helen is a bit like me, wanting peace in the family, but also the quiet rebel of the extended family. And Charlotte is much like my own idealistic daughter, trying to save the world, as Worth says, “one lettuce leaf at a time.”
Nona is my favorite. I’ve studied so many older women now and seen how age has brought them a generosity, a benevolence, and an ability to cherish the little moments of daily life. I loved Nona when she was Anne, too, because she was brave and so full of love. In the aftermath of war, she chose to nurture a new and precious life. She forgave her husband: She understood why he had done what he had. She was compassionate. With her own heart and her own arms, she brought the outsider in.
RHRC: Do you map your characters out from the beginning or do you allow their stories to unfold as you are writing? Do they occasionally surprise you?
NT: I don’t map them out from the beginning. Writing is an amazing alchemy. I talk with one friend about her son’s problem, admire another friend’s dress, and the next morning there’s a character walking around in my head, her very own person. I do believe there is something more than what our five senses tell us. I believe writers, like many of us, are hooked into that, into something universal. My characters become real to me. Sometimes I like to think of all my characters together, sharing a wonderful meal and talking about what I got right and wrong about them.
And yes, they do surprise me. I never know when I begin a novel how it’s going to end. When I started the book, I thought Helen might leave Worth, and I had no idea that Nona was going to chop down that hedge. Somehow, I feel that as I write, I grow along with my characters in understanding about the meaning of life. I feel lucky if that happens.
RHRC: Helen mentions the phrase “think globally, act locally.” Is this something you believe in as well?
NT: Absolutely. Having had two children and now two grandchildren, I feel more involved with the fate of the planet than ever. I want to keep it safe. Living on a small island where every bit of metal and plastic has to be shipped off makes me vividly aware of pollution. Nantucketers are maniac recyclers. I admire our younger generations; I believe in their endeavors to save the earth, one lettuce leaf at a time. I also believe in karma, and that we are all interrelated—quantum physics tells us that. A kindness done locally can reverberate a long way, like the butterfly’s wing stirring wind over the ocean.
RHRC: Worth tells his daughter that only two things matter in life: work and family. Do you agree? Would you add anything else to this?
NT: I would absolutely add something: friends! I couldn’t survive without my friends. Worth is expressing a very male point of view. Many things matter in life, and different people are given different opportunities. Not everyone loves her work. Not everyone has a family. I would say what matters in life is passion, a passion for gardening or sailing or cats or reading or baking, something that engages and challenges us, makes us feel alive and connected to this amazing universe, that makes us want to get up in the morning and get to it.
RHRC: Summer House is filled to the brim with interesting, well-drawn characters. Do you have a favorite among them?
NT: I love Nona/Anne the best. She is my favorite. But the one who was the most fun to write about was Grace! She just showed up in the book. I had no idea she would be there. She was so complete, so utterly herself. She’s so mean, so critical, so rigid. But she tries so hard, and I think there’s a tiny bit of me in her—I was the oldest child, always told to help out, always expected to be the good girl, to do everything right. I think Grace is a very complicated woman.
RHRC: If readers could take away just one message from this book, what would you want it to be?
NT: I suppose it would be the message I learned from my father—that we’re all part of the same extended family, and we should welcome our friends, wherever they’re from.
RHRC: This is such a minor detail, but I’ve always wondered: Why the name change from Anne to Nona?
NT: Anne’s name was changed to Nona when she became a grandmother. This happens often, I find, and I love it. I called my grandmother Nanny. Now my own grandchildren call me Nanny, and my daughter and her husband call me Nanny, too, in front of their children. It’s such a beautiful circle of love. I think this name change for women is a kind of rite of passage, and such a blessing.
RHRC: Every summer, the Wheelwrights make their way to Nantucket. As a year-round local, how do you feel about the influx of tourists during peak season?
NT: Certainly the change from 12,000 people in the winter to over 60,000 in the summer complicates life and creates traffic jams, but it also revitalizes our community and keeps the island economy going. And it’s wonderful that people are happy here—they’ve come here to be happy. They sail, party, stroll, eat ice cream, build sand castles with their children, fall in love—I like to sit on a bench on Main Street and watch them and smile, especially when I see a couple, young or old, holding hands.
RHRC: The scenes with Charlotte and her garden are simply lovely! Do you have any experience with gardening?
NT: My son and daughter are both gardeners. My son grows most of his vegetables and they’re delicious. One of my close friends has an enormous vegetable garden, which was the inspiration for Charlotte’s. She wrote a book about it: Dear Mr. Jefferson: Letters from a Nantucket Gardener, by Laura Simon.
I like to grow flowers and make little areas. We have a fairly large yard for in-town Nantucket, with three old maples we cherish because big trees are rare on the island. They shade the yard and limit what I can grow. My favorite area is the little slate path I laid beneath tall, curving rose of Sharon, and privet, which over the years I’ve trimmed and shaped to create a shadowy secret tunnel. At the end I’ve placed a large stone griffin. It’s a kind of small, magic avenue for my grandchildren and me to walk down. When my grandson first saw it, his eyes went wide.
RHRC: Do you think there is such a thing as too much family time and togetherness?
NT: I think it depends on the person. My family and I are all readers who can’t go long without finding a private spot and an hour or so for reading. I think this has rather puzzled my son-in-law, who loves to play board games at Christmas and wonders where we’ve all gone to. The other day, his daughter, my granddaughter, Adeline, left the room where we were all together talking, went into her own room, and shut the door. When we peeked in, she was happily arranging her books. I think it’s genetic!
RHRC: What’s coming up next from you?
NT: My new Nantucket novel, Beachcombers, is about three sisters who reunite on the island when their well-laid plans and their lives drastically change. Ambitious Emma works as a stockbroker in Boston, until the economy falters; she loses her job and is dumped by her fiance. She returns home so depressed that her younger sister, Lily, begs their oldest sister, Abbie, to come home. Abbie is used to taking care of her sisters ever since the death of their mother when Abbie was fifteen and Lily was seven. Now thirty, Abbie’s been in England for two years, and she thought she was free of family responsibility. But when their handsome, father, Jim, rents their playhouse to a gorgeous divorcée, even Abbie goes on guard. And Marina, the gorgeous divorcée, finds herself fascinated by Jim—but the three daughters make the relationship difficult. The sisters take jobs for the summer only to discover the jobs offer surprises that could be wonderful—if they’re brave enough to take the risks. Beachcombers is about the magic ordinary people find during a Nantucket summer, and about four women who must allow themselves to change in order to let the magic touch their lives.
1. Both Charlotte and Nona suspect Helen of having an affair. Why are they both so quick to assume that it would be Helen rather than Worth having the affair?
2. What’s the significance of Nona taking down the hedges?
3. Helen feels that she doesn’t quite fit into the Wheelwright mold. Does Helen set herself apart from the Wheelwrights or is it the family that keeps her at a distance?
4. Is it wrong to tell the family about Herb’s indiscretions since he is unable to defend himself? Does the family have the right to know the truth? How would Grace react to the news that Worth isn’t Nona’s son?
5. Why do Helen and Worth consider their children to be the rebels of the family, while Nona considers them to be full of spunk? Why are parents often unable to let go and let live?
6. Why do parents often feel the need to have their children follow in their footsteps?
7. Why is Grace so hard on everyone and so full of spite? Do her children deserve much more than Worth’s children because they did things the Wheelwright way?
8. Did Teddy drink because his father was so judgmental or was his father so judgmental because Teddy drank?
9. For four years, Charlotte has been secretly atoning for having an affair with her cousin’s husband. Did Mee’s own betrayal finally make up for Charlotte’s bad behavior? Was Charlotte being too hard on herself?
10. After keeping the secret for sixty years, was Nona right to finally tell Worth the truth about his parentage? Would Nona have taken her secret to the grave if it wasn’t for all the family drama that was occurring?
11. Why is it so difficult for people to separate themselves from their families?
12. Was it fair for Helen to bring up Sweet Cakes when she did, as a way to blackmail Worth and get her way?
13. Anne forgives Herb of his adultery because of his experiences with the war. Was that fair to her?