The cover of A Hundred Summers immediately reminded me of Tigers in Red Weather, a book that both made me cringe and feverishly read to the end. The descriptions sounded relatively similar too, and so I was in no particular hurry to get started on this one. After having it in my purse for a few days, I finally picked it up on the subway ride home and was transfixed. For the first time, in a long time, I was savouring the taste of the words on my tongue rather than racing to the finish line. There’s something about Beatriz Williams writing that makes you want to fold yourself into it and never come out.
Lily Dane, our narrator, uncovers the sordid story of her past and present. In 1931 she was still in college: best friends with Budgie Byrne, a heartbreakingly sexy socialite, and engaged to Nick Greenwald, a Jew. Somewhere between 1932 and 1938, Nick and Budgie were married and Lily found herself trying to swim out of the throes of shock and depression. Just as she thinks she’s accepting of the turns her life has taken, Nick and Budgie show up to summer with her in Seaview, Rhode Island. As the great hurricane of 1938 percolates in the distance, Lily’s entire foundation starts to unravel. She comes closer to learning the truth behind the Greenwald’s marriage as well as shameful family secrets that were meant to stay hidden.
Lily flips back and forth between 1931/1932 and the present, 1938. I have never read a book so perfectly structured between the past and the present. Moving between the two times was effortless and complimentary, rather than jarring. It’s no exaggeration that the book seduced me. The writing was a tease. Every second that I spent in 1938 with Lily, Nick, Budgie, and co., I wanted to know more about 1931, and vice versa. My body tingled with anticipation each time a small piece of the story was unraveled, like the buttons of a shirt slowly being undone to reveal a bit more skin. The scenery was scorching and bright, with hints of salty air tingeing every page.
While the heart of the story involves a love triangle (and occasionally a quadrilateral), Beatriz William’s writing showcases the wrinkles in a time period that is not often written about. She subtly ties together America’s distrust for the Jews, the financial crash, the burgeoning of World War II, and the plastic exterior of society’s finest. That last point was the only one that frustrated me about this book—the characters themselves. We clearly see the severe dysfunction within each person as everyone puts on an overly-affected show but, aside from a few brief moments of clarity, that’s all they ever remain. I would have willingly immersed myself in 100 more pages to learn more about the men and women behind the “darlings” and “my dears” than to catch glimpses at key moments.
When I finally finished the book, it took awhile to pull myself back to present day. I still felt the heat of the beach, the grit of the sand, and the tension of events that unfolded. Maybe a part of me just didn’t want to let go.