Even though the forecast promises many more hot days, at least in the Deep South, it’s time to farewell summer with one last nostalgic read full of literary references, lobster dinners, sun-bleached hair, and a reminder that fun must make way for more serious pursuits…
By Jennifer Levasseur
Let me admit it at the start: I’m not one for books normally referred to as “summer reads.” Maybe I should blame it on my Catholic girlhood. Every summer of my high school years shortly before my birthday, the school sent me its version of a present: a list of novels I needed to get through before the start of classes. While the school actually expected us to choose only one or two, I was sure I’d miss something if I failed to tackle the entirety. During those summers, I read my first Chekhov, Their Eyes Were Watching God, My Brilliant Career. I was introduced to Joseph Conrad and John Gardener.
With their broken families, degradations, horrors, and linguistic complexities, none of these book could be classified as beach reads. Maybe those hot backyard days spent sweating over classics, which opened worlds to me that my small existence hadn’t foreseen, short-circuited my desire for detective novels or love stories with uncomplicated happy endings. So whenever I hear phrases like “the summer’s most-anticipated novel” or “a perfect pitch for the beach,” I experience a discordance: I should be re-reading Anna Karenina! Middlemarch! Vanity Fair!
So imagine my surprise when, just after my birthday on a day-trip to Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi, the book that caught my attention and wouldn’t let go was a slim debut novel I hadn’t heard of, one that takes place almost entirely from June to September 1987 on Cape Cod. Karen Dukess’s summer novel of failure to launch after college, class structure in holiday villages, and the allure of old-guard literary figures contains all the elements of a traditional summer read, down to descriptions of wet bathing suits, bluefish dip, and boozy parties staged solely to expose secrets.
The Last Book Party follows Eve Rosen, a young administrative assistant at a New York publishing company who has writerly ambitions but little follow-through. Her conventional parents have long kept a house on Cape Cod, convenient since she’s finally been invited to a party by the literary set she’s admired but never moved among. As part of her job, she regularly corresponds with Henry Grey, a New Yorker writer in her publisher’s stable whose memoir is long overdue—but no longer of much interest. Even so, he’s legendary for his articles on obscure topics, withering quips, and relationship with his poet wife, Tillie, whose prestige is beginning to surpass his own. This event is the first of their annual summer parties, ones with constantly shifting guestlists and antics that sometimes appear in “The Talk of the Town.” Her mother is sure Eve has been invited only as a courtesy: no one expects her actually to attend.
What begins as a weekend lark—the chance to see how the literati really live, in such proximity to her own perceived ordinariness—transforms Eve’s life, or at least her summer. Before she knows it, she’s been overlooked for an expected promotion, offered a job as Henry’s research assistant, and moved (temporarily) from New York to Cape Cod. The Last Book Party zips along in only the way that novels that are well-thought-out and generously peopled by minor characters with outsized backstories can. There’s a beloved if prickly small-town librarian, a young and intriguing novelist who’s about to make it big, Tillie’s intimidating assistant, the couple’s handsome son who went to an exclusive prep school—and, surely, can read but does not—and a mathematical genius of a brother. Yes, these characters are amplified and even expected, which is why they’re so comforting in a summer read, especially one that’s well-written and isn’t trying to be more than it is. Of course, there’s a love triangle. Actually, it may be a love square that turns into a love heptagon, but it isn’t (too) tawdry, and the end—while not the happiest—becomes quietly satisfying.
The Last Book Party is the perfect slim novel to finish off the summer and slide into fall: just the right amount of froth and scandal coupled with quips about the literary scene and culminating in a costume party where the writers, publishers, artists, and hangers-on dress up as Holly Golightly, Zuleika Dobson, Jay Gatsby, Christopher Robin, and the unnamed narrator of Bright Lights, Big City. The novel is fun, and it contains the right proportion of high-brow literature to sweaty liaisons. And just as our narrator learns, The Last Book Party reminds us why this season of heated intensity must be followed by more serious contemplation.