When I was an English teacher, we always ended the school year with a ritual argument about summer reading. My erudite opponents claimed students should gird their loins and trudge through George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” or some other Improving Literature. My free-spirited comrades and I countered that June, July and August were months to let sun-kissed students wander barefoot through the stacks, picking at whim whatever titles they might enjoy.
Many of us are still silently carrying out that argument when we pack our suitcases — or load our e-readers: Should I spend a week at Virginia Beach with Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” or E L James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey”?
Before you get all tied up in knots about that decision, consider our sunny spread on summer reading. The spirit of compromise may have abandoned official Washington, but it still graces these pages, where treasure and pleasure frolic in halcyon harmony. Best-selling novelist Jennifer Weiner recommends three good novels that feature bad vacations, which should put in perspective any mix-ups you encounter on the road. We’ve also got a helpful guide to using e-readers on the beach and our first roundup of romance novels in years. To get you thinking about what to pack, we’ve asked some prominent D.C. figures what titles they’re lusting to read , and the Book World editors look back at their favorites so far this year — and ahead to some promising titles this fall.
For a sophisticated summer romp, I recommend “Seating Arrangements” (Knopf, $25.95), the first novel from Maggie Shipstead. Set over three warm days on a WASP-y island off the coast of New England, it’s impeccably well-bred for vacation reading. The author is a graduate of Harvard and a dedicated student of the Darien club set, and once she grabs these characters by their pearl chokers and duck belts, she never lets go.
Like any classic romantic comedy, “Seating Arrangements” culminates in a wedding, but getting down the aisle just about kills the father of the bride. At 59, Winn Van Meter has spent his whole buttoned-down life on a rickety perch of the upper class, trying to fulfill Brahmin expectations. Resigned to the inevitability of “death, taxes, and family,” he’s a persnickety, joyless man, easily annoyed by others’ misbehavior or anyone who impedes his quest for “some axis of perfect exclusivity.” His elder, pregnant daughter’s wedding is just the sort of awkward extravagance that tweaks his bow tie — “a family reunion and missile launch and state dinner all rolled into one.”
Among the guests arriving in madras shorts and L.L. Bean sandals is one gorgeous young bridesmaid unburdened by qualms about hooking up with an older, married man like Winn. Before the rice flies, there will be broken hearts and broken bones, falling bodies and exploding whales, consummations devoutly to be wished and interrupted. Can a family that believes “love was something to be tamped down beneath decorum” ever find romance?
At just 28 years old, Shipstead captures the bride’s forlorn sister in all her wounded disappointments, and she’s particularly astute in her portrayal of a young Egyptian bridesmaid who regards the troubles of the 1 percent with muted exasperation. What’s more surprising is Shipstead’s unnerving insight into the comic-tragedy of middle-aged men, that mixture of smothered envy, aspiration and lust that mutates into irritated superiority. (So I’ve heard. . . .)
The sea breeze blowing through “Seating Arrangements” is Shipstead’s affection for these spoiled people, her tender handling of their sorrows and longings, which you’ll respond to even if you don’t summer on Nantucket. She’s already producing the kind of humane comedy we expect from Richard Russo and Elinor Lipman.
Emerging from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the novel displays that institutional syndrome in which every sentence strains to be the cleverest one in the class, but maybe that’s just my envy talking. Shipstead’s weave of wit and observation continually delights. I wouldn’t be surprised if someday she trades her Lilly Pulitzer for something from Joseph Pulitzer.
More on summer reading:
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor and is on Twitter: @RonCharles.