Celebrating Jewish Literature: Summer, marriage and melodrama

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Google defines melodrama as “a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions.” I consider melodrama to also include too many unbelievable coincidences and events. But that doesn’t mean melodrama is a bad thing. For example, while I might have kept saying, “Oh, come on, really, yet another twist?” when reading Jennifer Weiner’s novel “The Summer Place” (Atria Books), that doesn’t mean I didn’t keep eagerly turning its pages to discover what would happen. That makes it a great book for the beach or, in my case, a three-day weekend (although I did finish it in two days.) Yes, I know that Weiner does include some serious material: that was affective, but it was the convoluted plot elements that captured my attention. 

It’s hard to know where to begin since I don’t want to ruin the surprises. What sets the plot in motion is 22-year-old Ruby Danhauser’s announcement that she and her pandemic boyfriend, Gabe, are going to marry at her grandmother Ronnie’s beach house on Cape Cod that summer. Her stepmother, Sarah, is upset because a) she feels Ruby is too young, b) has not known Gabe that long and c) she told Ronnie, who is Sarah’s mother, about the wedding first. This is not Sarah’s only worry: Eli, her husband and the father of her two sons, has been acting strangely since the pandemic started. Sarah feels shut out and alone. Readers learn why Eli feels this way: years ago.... sorry, but I’m not going to reveal any of the surprises. 

However, Eli is not the only one with a secret. Ronnie has something she needs to tell her children. A once successful novelist, she put her writing career aside for reasons that are part of yet another plot twist. Her son, Sam (and Sarah’s twin) also has to make some difficult life decisions. He plans to reveal those when he comes east with his stepson for the wedding. Readers learn about Ruby’s mother, who left Eli when she was a baby, and how Sarah and Eli came to marry. Ruby’s interaction with her stepmother and her half-siblings also plays a role in the book. However, it is Ruby herself who sets the final over-the-top plot twists into action.

The summer house itself is a minor character in the book and its thoughts open the different sections of the novel. She (as the house is called) worries about what will happen to the family if Ronnie sells her, especially because she can’t speak to them, but only watch their actions: “The house never gave up. She kept working at it, trying to find ways to let her people know she heard them, that she saw them, that she wanted to help. They might take her for granted; they might leave her empty all through the winter, letting mice chew through her insolation to make nests inside her walls, but she cared for them, and always would.” 

Whether readers like “The Summer Place” will depend on their tolerance for plot twists and almost unbelievable coincidences. While not normally the type of book I enjoy, reading it was a great way to forget my own problems. I also couldn’t wait to talk about the plot and share the melodramatic action.