By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
Summer can be a wonderful time – filled with vacations, fun and romance. People travel to the beach or fancy resorts to escape their everyday lives. Yet, not everyone has enjoyable feelings about summer, as shown in two recent novels. A mostly light-hearted look at the closing of a family resort is the theme of Elyssa Friedland’s “Last Summer at the Golden Hotel” (Berkley), while Jennifer Weiner’s “That Summer” (Atria Books) takes a far more serious look at how one summer changed a life forever.
Friedland, who is the author of “The Floating Feldmans” (see The Reporter’s review at www.thereportergroup.org/past-articles/feature-book-review/feature-book-review-stream/book-review-stream/off-the-shelf-a-wedding-and-vacation-by-rabbi-rachel-esserman), now writes about two dysfunctional families: the Goldmans and the Weingolds. The two patriarchs of the families – Benny and Amos – were best friends for more than 60 years and co-owners of a resort, the Golden Hotel, in the Catskills. But Benny has passed away before the novel begins and the hotel has been losing money for years. The buildings and grounds are deteriorating and fewer people are staying every summer. When a developer offers a great deal of money to buy the land, three generations of the two families gather to decide whether they should take the offer.
The narrative rotates between different members of the families, so readers learn about life at the hotel through a variety of eyes. Although a major part of the plot focuses on the potential sale of the hotel, the author also tells of the characters’ lives outside of the hotel, which affect their feelings about what the families should do. The second generation also thinks back on their summers at the hotel and being treated as royalty by the staff. Romance – or rather unrequited romance – played a role during their teen years: Aimee Goldman was attracted to Brian Weingold, who was not interested in her, while his brother, Peter, pined after Aimee. Now, Brian, who is running the hotel, wonders about the turn his life has taken since his escape from a marriage gone wrong: the hotel job was supposed to be only a temporary fix. Aimee discovers her seemingly perfect life is based on a lie after she learns the truth about her husband’s medical practice. Peter, a workaholic, claims to be so busy that he’s unable to spare a moment from his busy law practice and sends his two children to represent him. The members of the third generation – Aimee’s three children and Peter’s offspring – have their own ideas about what should be done with the hotel. Of course, many of the characters have secrets, which are slowly revealed over the course of the novel.
“Last Summer at the Golden Hotel” is a nostalgic, pleasant look at family relationships and the heyday of Jewish Catskill hotels. At first, the many characters’ relationships were difficult to follow, but the novel includes two family trees for easy reference. One part of the ending didn’t feel completely convincing, although it was fun to read and may make readers chuckle. Anyone looking for an amiable summer read will find it here.
While “Last Summer at the Golden Hotel” does have its serious moments, the novel generally qualifies as light fiction. That’s not true for “That Summer,” whose plot focuses on a “Me Too” moment. In an undated prologue, 15-year-old Diana is spending a summer as a mother’s helper at the Jersey shore. She enjoys the work and makes friends with other mother’s helpers and a young man from a prep school whose fellow students are taking a last vacation together before they head for college. The next section of the novel is dated 2019 and focuses on Daisy Shoemaker. Daisy isn’t certain why she’s feeling dissatisfied with what some would call a perfect life: a beautiful home; a husband, Hal, who loves and supports her; a small cooking business; and a teenage daughter, Beatrice. Yet, something isn’t right. The current conflict between Hal and Beatrice doesn’t help. Beatrice is being expelled from Hal’s alma mater, a boarding school that Daisy’s two brothers also attended. Daisy has also been lonely since her best and really only close friend died recently, and she has no one to confide in. That’s why she’s open to a friendship with Diana, whose e-mail accidentally arrives in her inbox because their addresses are almost the same. The two meet, but the result of that meeting will eventually change the lives of both women.
It’s difficult to write more about the plot of “That Summer” without giving away too much. The novel moves back in time to tell stories of Daisy’s and Diana’s lives, although readers at first have to guess how they are connected. Although there are some humorous parts (reading Beatrice’s thoughts when Daisy tries to talk to her about sex were laugh-out-loud funny), the underlying concept of the novel is very serious. What stands out are the ethical questions it raises: is there a moral statute of limitations on confronting someone for the wrong they’ve done; what considerations should be taken to protect the innocents whose lives will be changed; and how guilty are those who stood by, rather than stopping an action. In a wonderful turn of narration at the end of the novel, Weiner lets readers see events through the eyes of the perpetrator of the “Me Too” moment: this doesn’t excuse the person’s action, but rather shows how some people make assumptions about others that are unwarranted.
“That Summer” is a well-done novel, perfect for book clubs or discussion groups, although some participants might be disturbed if it reminds them of events from their own lives. The work ends on a positive note, which felt unrealistic. However, that is a small flaw and one that will make many readers happy. This is not a beach book in the sense of a mindless read, but rather one showing how one event in what should have been a happy summer affected a person negatively for decades.