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Elin Hilderbrand reinvented the beach read — and created a community in the process

Novelist Elin Hilderbrand parties with superfans at her Bucket List weekend in January in Nantucket, Mass. (Emily Elisabeth Photography)

I haven’t gone so far as to put the bumper sticker on my car, but I can certainly appreciate the sentiment it expresses: “I’d rather be living in an Elin Hilderbrand novel.” I get it — not just now, during these high-anxiety times, but also when I picked it up, in January, at a gathering (remember gatherings?) of 150 Hilderbrand superfans.

The party took place on Nantucket, where many of Hilderbrand’s books are set, and over the course of four days, it became clear why Hilderbrand — whose novels, I confess, I didn’t always appreciate — is more than just “the queen of the summer beach read,” as she is known to many. Her annual Bucket List Weekend is her attempt to re-create for her most loyal readers the warm and sunny world of her fiction. Never mind the bitter cold New England weather.

Wearing skinny white jeans, a peach sequin tank and pointy heels, she was hostess, friend, confidante and, if necessary, politician. She greeted her fans lovingly. She smiled; she hugged; she clinked wine glasses. When one attendee showed up at a cocktail hour in a hot-pink homemade fan T-shirt, she leaned in for a selfie. She listened as her readers offered twists for her next novel (“I’ll take any suggestions on how it should end,” she gamely joked), asked for tips on their own literary endeavors and told her about their personal woes. When she learned that one fan had to cancel because she was having emergency surgery for a brain tumor, Hilderbrand politely snapped her fingers and had flowers sent.

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The Bucket List Weekend felt like many things that may not ever be (or be the same) again: an all-girl destination wedding; a bat mitzvah; a sorority party; a cancer survivors’ support-group meeting; a (single-author) book festival; the most decked-out book club meeting ever. There was yoga with Elin, wine and cheese with Elin, book signings with Elin, a live Q&A with Elin (and her enthusiastic sister, Heather Thorpe), two gala dinners with Elin, cooking classes with Elin and the highlight for many: dive-bar dancing with Elin. Buses shuttled attendees to sites that appeared in many of Hilderbrand’s books — mansions, restaurants and beaches where her characters have frolicked and fought and fallen in and out of love.

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Hilderbrand writes escapist novels. Characters with names like Tabitha Frost and Deacon Thorpe meet, squabble and reconcile — all while getting really tan on the toniest New England beaches. As Jake McCloud, the hunky male lead in Hilderbrand’s latest book, “28 Summers” (an epic love story that pays homage to “Same Time Next Year”), puts it: “This place is a slice of heaven.” The sun shines, the food is delicious and, as another writer once said about another place: All the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.

It would be easy to dismiss Hilderbrand’s books as pure fluff, but her literary bona fides are genuine. Hilderbrand studied at Johns Hopkins and graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Madison Smartt Bell, who taught her at Johns Hopkins, said that he was not surprised by her success, though he has “mostly admired her from afar,” When she began writing romances, he said in an email, “I think she didn’t particularly need my help.” If Hilderbrand had “been building a career as a ‘serious and literary’ writer — understood that these categories are arbitrary,” he said, “I likely would have been more involved.”

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Hilderbrand and her readers don’t care, and I can see why. As the “serious” literary world looks on with binoculars, Hilderbrand is selling books — lots of them, roughly 10 million and counting. Her 23 books have been on national bestseller lists, and her 2019 novel, “Summer of ’69,” was a nine-week No. 1 New York Times bestseller. They have been translated into multiple languages, and several books are in development for television series and feature films.

On top of her commercial success, Hilderbrand has built something else: a sisterhood. To many of her readers, Hilderbrand is both a celebrity and a bestie. “This is better than meeting Madonna,” said one Bucket List attendee (who had met Madonna). “She’s just like us, but she can write — and lives in Nantucket,” said another.

Not only does Hilderbrand, a 50-year-old mother of three, occasionally give out her cellphone number at book signings, but she also actually answers the handful of fans who use it. She checks in on their health, their relationships, their children.

She has even worked their names into her novels: Three attendees of her 2019 weekend appear in “28 Summers.” The trio got the roles (albeit minor) by winning a trivia contest at a Bucket List gala. “I know lots of useless Elin book info!” joked Deena Rannazzisi Dick, a Realtor and mother of three who plays a receptionist at a doctor’s office in “28 Summers.”

Many of the women who made the Bucket List pilgrimage are survivors — of cancer, divorce or simply life. In 2014 Hilderbrand had a double mastectomy, an experience she began speaking about at public events just days after it happened.

At this year’s party, attendees came from as far as Missouri, California and Toronto. Many had made reservations more than a year in advance — roughly 400 people vied for one of the 150 spots. They spent thousands to attend the event at the upscale Nantucket Hotel, where many room prices, though discounted, cost north of $400 a night. (Hilderbrand does not receive any proceeds beyond book sales.) Some got stranded on the mainland as stormy weather rocked the Atlantic. It was all part of the adventure — a badge of honor, as one attendee put it.

Sure, there was a lot of partying, but something else also took place: a kind of communion that, four months later, feels especially poignant. As one reader said at that Q&A: “We want to be seen and appreciated.” And here, they were.

Trish Balas-Chambers, a retired registered nurse from Rye, N.H., who’s battled cancer, had come with three close friends, work colleagues she’d met years ago. As we talked in their hotel suite, some of them quietly confessed to not having read many of Hilderbrand’s books, or even to not liking them so much. It didn’t matter. For these 50-something women, the weekend was more than just a break from daily life. “It was like an extremely successful four-day therapy session of women taking care of women and continuing to nurture our relationship through good times and hard times,” Balas-Chambers said.

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On the final day of the Bucket List Weekend, Hilderbrand surprised Balas-Chambers with a gift — signed manuscript pages from her story “Summer of ’79.” There were hugs and tears. It was like a scene from an Elin Hilderbrand novel.

All these months later, as America hunkers down in isolation, that intimacy — of women sharing not just their love of a book or a writer, but of one another, in person — feels as distant as a carefree Nantucket summer. “The mind-set has changed now,” Hilderbrand said by phone from her home on the island, where she’s in lockdown with her children. “That weekend, I never gave a second thought to throwing my arms around my readers and dancing together. Now, I don’t know.”

Hilderbrand does hope Bucket List 2021 will happen in January and plans to go on a modified tour with “28 Summers” when it is released next month. She says she’ll do signings at a social distance, outdoors.

It’s a strange time, she admits, to be releasing a book set in June 2020 in which there’s no pandemic and a woman is running for president. “People need to read things that are escapist, whether they can go to the beach or not,” she says.

These days, that bumper sticker feels truer than ever: I’d rather be living in an Elin Hilderbrand novel. Wouldn’t we all — or at least spend a long weekend pretending we were?

Nora Krug is an editor and writer at Book World.

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