Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Wednesday, May 13, 2015: Maximum Shelf: Summer Secrets


St. Martin's: Summer Secrets by Jane Green

St. Martin's: Summer Secrets by Jane Green

St. Martin's: Summer Secrets by Jane Green

St. Martin's: Summer Secrets by Jane Green

Summer Secrets

by Jane Green

Jane Green has never shied away from tackling hot-button issues. Her novels have delved into the challenges and perils of extramarital affairs and divorce, mental and physical illness, families in transition, death and grief and the angst of midlife. In Summer Secrets, Green (Family Secrets; Saving Grace) peers inside the heart, mind and soul of a woman grappling with alcoholism and how that addiction pacifies and plagues every aspect of her life.

The story is told by Cat Coombs, a sophisticated and self-aware, yet deeply flawed, Brit who looks at life from two crossroads: when she was 29 and as she nears the age of 40. 

In a short prologue set in 2014 London, Cat, in her late 30s, is a single mother and a struggling alcoholic. Eighteen months divorced and in the process of rebuilding her life via Alcoholics Anonymous, she is filled with regret. One night, while Cat's teenage daughter, Annie, is out with her father--whom Cat learns has a new girlfriend--she is tempted to reach for a hidden bottle of vodka--her "secret shame"--and "worship at the altar of the god to whom" she was once enslaved. This highly charged scene leaves the reader to wonder if Cat will succumb. The emotional landscape of this episode is a recurring thread in the novel, as Cat hides a multitude of alcoholic sins that chronically test her strength and willpower.

In the first chapter, she is a single, free-spirited 29-year-old, at the height of her career, working as a journalist for the Daily Gazette, a high-powered British fashion magazine. Cat loves a good time. She parties every night with co-workers and friends and drinks too much, sometimes to the point of blacking out. As she watches her contemporaries begin to settle down, she assesses her life, realizing the transformative effect alcohol has had on her since she was a teenager. "Alcohol made me beautiful in a way I never felt the rest of the time," Cat admits. "It filled me with a confidence that had always been missing."

She believes her binge drinking stems from her relationship with her father, Richard, an often demeaning and controlling man, for whom Cat could never meet expectations: "I was not the daughter he wanted."

When Richard dies, her mother, Audrey--a loyal wife who spent Cat's adolescence afraid of her husband and steeped in a deep, undiagnosed depression--shares a secret that changes Cat's life in profound and unexpected ways: Richard wasn't Cat's biological father. Her father is actually Brooks Mayhew, a charming, boozy American artist with whom Audrey had an affair one summer during a visit to the home of a beloved aunt on the island of Nantucket.

Cat wonders if her mother's unexpected revelation might be the underlying reason why she has always felt like a misfit. In an effort to dull the sting of this disclosure, Cat drinks in earnest, until one morning she wakes up, hungover, in a strange bed with a handsome man she doesn't know--Jason Halliwell, a television news director and recovering alcoholic who identified with Cat's drunken stupor the night before. "You were horribly drunk," he tells her. "You wanted to go home, but you couldn't remember where you live. I don't usually bring strange women back to my flat, but it seemed like a safer option than leaving you collapsed in a doorway...." Jason turns out to be a kind, gentlemanly savior. The two forge a bond, and Jason eventually talks her into attending her first AA meeting.

Jason's support proves the perfect impetus for Cat to dry out and turn her life around. Things seem to get even better when Audrey brokers a connection between Cat and Brooks Mayhew, who was unaware of his daughter's existence. Brooks, in turn, invites Cat to Nantucket to visit him and his daughters, Julia and Ellie, over the summer. Brooks's invitation, and learning that she has two sisters, excites Cat. But the fear of meeting the family also brings feelings of trepidation: Will she turn to drink for courage and confidence? Jason is leery about the trip, as AA frowns upon making any big life changes during the first year of sobriety. Cat--torn between disappointing Jason, yet headstrong in her ways--sets off for Nantucket anyway.

En route, she fantasizes a loving family reunion. The Nantucket house proves initially cozy and comfortable, and Brooks, the antithesis of Richard in every way, is extremely warm. Freespirited Julia soon strikes up an amicable rapport with Cat, while Ellie--married with a husband and children but "coldly polite" and immersed in Park Avenue high society--proves much harder to win over.

When Cat learns that her family is not as "perfect" as she'd envisioned, she succumbs and joins in the family pastime for over-indulging in alcohol. She drinks herself into a stupor and loses all sense of reasoning and propriety. She ultimately commits an egregious sin that shatters the place of refuge she longed to find amid her newfound family.

A beaten Cat returns to Britain. Her life, including her relationship with Jason, falls apart as the story shifts to her 10 years later--still ruing the Nantucket disaster, now a single mother, still drinking and on a path of self-destruction. When Cat is finally faced with losing everything that matters, a trip to a detox center and a 12-step program propel her to change "the things she can" in her life--including risking a return visit to Nantucket. Is Cat truly capable of confronting her past and her own glaring mistakes? Will she finally be able to reconnect with her family and mend their broken relationship?

Green has written an impassioned, harrowing drama rife with betrayals, reversals and secrets. In chilling detail, she delves into the circuitous, emotional journey of a woman who is keenly perceptive yet sadly powerless to help herself. Cat's poor decisions and her self-destructive behavior may challenge some readers' affections. However, Green's well rendered insights into Cat's flaws, imperfections and her interior alcoholic sensibility lend gritty realism that ultimately inspires empathy for Cat's character. Readers will root for Cat to do better, to live smarter, to find a way to forgive herself and make amends with those she's hurt in the hope she can move beyond the regrets of her own dark past and step into a brighter future. --Kathleen Gerard

St. Martin's Press, $26.99, hardcover, 9781250047342

St. Martin's: Summer Secrets by Jane Green


Jane Green: Standing Slightly on the Outside, Observing

photo: Ian Warburg

In 1996, Jane Green left her job as a feature writer for the Daily Express (U.K.) to write a novel. Seven months later, Straight Talk emerged, a story about a career girl looking for "Mr. Right." There was a bidding war for its publication, and Green soon became an "overnight success." Throughout the years, Green's popular novels have evolved and deepened. She continues to contribute to a host of publications and appears regularly on television programs such as Good Morning America and The Today Show. Green is also an avid gardener, cook and house decorator. Her novels--stories about contemporary women facing real-life challenges--often include glimpses of her personal passions. Summer Secrets, Green's 17th novel, focuses on a woman wrestling with the far-reaching aspects of her alcoholism.

You are British by birth and now live in the U.S. Is it a conscious choice on your part to merge aspects of both places in your work?

I spent a few years writing books peopled solely by Americans--The Beach House, Dune Road, Promises to Keep--but I realized that my being English is such a strong part of who I am, it felt dishonest not to use that. As much as I can observe the American sensibility, it is my Englishness that informs who I am and the choices I make on a daily basis, and I realized I had to have some of that in my books in order to be true to myself.

The island of Nantucket is central to a few of your novels, including Summer Secrets. What's your connection to the area?

My husband has been going to Nantucket since he was a baby, and we have spent a lot of time there over the last nine years, but I am particularly interested in the old Nantucket--I love hearing about the history, about what it used to be like. I have tremendous sadness about how these places have changed. What was once home to advertising creatives and actors and writers is now is overrun by huge houses and men working "in finance." The changing priorities, the value on "stuff," changes the personality of these towns, and I am trying to keep a little of the old values, the old sensibilities, alive in my books.

Why and how did you decide to tell Summer Secrets from Cat's very intimate, first-person point-of-view?

I started my career with first-person novels, and after about four books decided to change, realizing how much bigger the world of the novel became if you could tell it in a third-person narrative. Last year, I picked up Emily Giffin's novel The One and Only, and was swept up in the first-person point of view in a way that was instantly intimate, and personal. I felt like the character was talking to me, and I remembered how joyful that was in my early books, to write in that way. Summer Secrets seemed like the perfect story to tell in that way.

Cat is an alcoholic. What, if any, personal experience have you had with alcoholism?

Recently, I had a discussion with one of my dearest friends, and we both came to the same realization that every one of the people we adore, the people closest to us, has a relationship with alcohol. That relationship is not necessarily the same: some drink, some define themselves as alcoholics, some are sober, some not. But they all have a relationship, and there is a certain kind of extremism that comes with addicts and alcoholics, which I am always drawn to. Addicts do not see the world in shades of grey but in black and white. They feel passionately. They love and they hate. And that's something I have always related to. You can put me in a room of a thousand people, and I will always end up finding the addicts and alcoholics.

Some female characters you've created are addictive and impulsive. Why are you drawn to exploring these types of behaviors in your work?

The kinds of stories I write are real, with an emotional honesty that can only come from drawing from what I observe, and what I feel. My experience isn't everyone's, but I write so often about women who don't feel quite good enough, who are riddled with insecurities, who are looking for peace. I believe that feeling "less than" is universal, particularly these days, when we are all trying too hard to be perfect, all so worried that those around us will look at us and see our imperfections and flaws.

Your characters often admit to feeling fragile and lonely, as though they don't belong.

Part of why I became a writer is because I am always standing slightly on the outside, observing. I am not someone who has ever felt comfortable in groups, nor in situations where conformation is a requisite, and I gravitate to women who are similar. I'm also a deep introvert, and something of a recluse, according to my children who are old enough now to recognize all of my flaws. I'm far more interested in writing about women who don't quite fit the norm--my experience is that these are the women who think more, who are more complicated, who have fuller lives, make more interesting choices and therefore make more interesting characters.

You've been heralded as a founding member of "Chick Lit." How has the genre changed over the years?

I feel enormously honored to have been at the forefront of a movement that really did transform women's fiction. The books we wrote were the first ones that portrayed real women, filled with insecurities, living lives like everyone we knew, with emotional honesty and humor. Up until that time, commercial fiction offered sex and shopping sagas and bonkbusters. No one had reflected real life in quite the same way. But I also think I have moved on and grown up, plus I defy anyone to call me a chick these days. I think chick lit has really transformed into what we call YA, and all of us who were there at the beginning are writing very different sorts of books today.

Where do you see your writing heading in the future?

I'm working on my own cookbook--Happy Food--which will hopefully be out later this year. I have written it, filling it with stories from my life, and have found an incredible photographer. I am so excited to bring my personal passion for cooking to fruition.

I have just written a short story, "Cat and Jemima J," where readers get a glimpse into Jemima's life today (she was a character from an earlier novel). The short will be available as a free digital e-book to coincide with the release of Summer Secrets.

I'm also outlining a YA novel, which I'm really excited about. It's a hugely fun combination of English and American culture, with a big smattering of royalty. And then I have the idea for the next two novels, the first of which I will hopefully get to start very soon. There are a couple of other projects I can't talk about just yet, but they may bring my passion for decorating to life in a way I hadn't ever anticipated.

I ran into someone recently who is a psychic and medium, and she told me that being flanked by water on two sides is amazing for creativity. All I can tell you is ever since I moved into the Creaky Cottage on the Creek, my new house, I have been on fire! --Kathleen Gerard


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