The Last Summer of the Camperdowns by Elizabeth Kelly
400 pages; Liveright; June 2013
What do you think of when you think of a beach read? Something light, something you can pick up and put down without much thought to it, something to take you away a little, but not absorb you too much; a silly romance, maybe, or an easily-solved mystery. Something everyone’s reading. The magazines always come out with lists of beach reads in the summer. (I usually want nothing to do with any of them. I don’t think I’m a beach-read type of gal.)
This, however, is my type of beach read, for the simple reason that it’s a wonderful book, and it’s set at the beach. Maybe this should be our new criteria for a beach read: it has to be good, and there has to be sun, sand and water involved, at least tangentially. Make that a thing, will you? Whoever does such things? Good, good.
Riddle Camperdown is twelve years old in the summer of 1972, living on the beach in Cape Cod with her mother, Greer, an ex-screen star, and her father, Camp, a hopeful politician. Everyone drips with old money, in one form or another; the Camperdowns (although they’re a bit down on their luck, due to Camp’s plans and schemes), Greer’s old friend Gin, who lives just up the road and has dreams of breeding horses never before seen on American soil, and Michael Devlin and his sons Charlie and Harry, who have history with the Camperdown family – history that’s studiously hidden from Riddle.
A child disappears; a romance is rekindled; a building burns; a girl falls in love for the first time; secrets pile up upon secrets until no one seems to know who’s got the truth in their hands anymore; and in the shadows, a man lurks, waiting for the minute he can catch you alone and unaware.
It’s a beach read in that it’s set at the beach, but it snags you and it doesn’t let you go. Perhaps not the right thing to read on your vacation, then, because you’ll find the sun has long since set, everyone else has gone in for the night, you have a terrible sunburn, and the tide is creeping much too close to your toes for comfort.
Riddle is a believable twelve-year-old, and I loved her for it. Who among us doesn’t remember that awkward age between childhood and the teen years, where you’re still longing for your dolls but relationships, with all their twisty mysteries, are starting to look interesting? Well, interesting, and also terrifying, because no one gives you a rulebook, do they? You’re expected to figure it out as you go. You’re all hormones and longing and weeping for no reason and overblown theatrics and everything is the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, often all within moments of one another.
I usually get bored with the horsey, old-money set – I mean, I have nothing in common with them, I don’t understand their ways, and what’s with the no white after Labor Day nonsense, I don’t even own white pants, I mean please, those are just asking for trouble, you know I’d sit on something and ruin them within fifteen minutes of purchasing them – but these people intrigued me. They were well-written enough that I wanted to know more, even when they were behaving terribly. Which was often. I mean, give people all the money and free time in the world, and what are they going to do with it, cure cancer? No. They’re going to tear each other apart. It’s human nature.
The mysteries – and there are multiple mysteries – never get too tangled to follow, which I appreciated. The solutions also were never telegraphed – up until the very end, I didn’t know the final solution, and when it was revealed, I grinned. It was probably the improper reaction, considering what it was…but I do like a well-resolved mystery.
And the ending – oh, the ending. Just a perfect ending. Another thing I didn’t see coming, but so true to the characters, yet also a bit surprising. Not at all what I was expecting, yet exactly what I needed.
It’s the middle of the winter, I’m apparently living in the freezing tundra one day and then some sort of strange spring landscape the next here in upstate New York, but for a few days I got to be in Cape Cod with some really fully-realized characters and the scent of the ocean in the air. Screw saving your beach books for the summer. This is the perfect time of year for them, for me.