MONTAUK, by Nicola Harrison. St. Martin’s Press, 388 pp., $27.99.
Beatrice Bordeaux (that name!), the heroine of “Montauk,” a tasty if imperfect historical romance, is like an immature wine: young, unsure of herself, not quite ready to pour.
Debut novelist Nicola Harrison uncorks Beatrice’s bittersweet story — and her fraught passage to full-bodied adulthood — in this juicy tale set at the tip of Long Island during the summer of 1938.
Channeling Kristin Hannah, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Julian Fellowes (an improbable if mostly successful mix), Harrison is intent on delivering more than a frothy beach read. As Chekhov said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”
“Montauk” avoids the Montauk of 2019 while cleverly offering wink-wink commentary on the present day with its “Gatsby”-esque flourishes. There are the obnoxious haves (one percenters from Manhattan seemingly untouched by the Great Depression) and the sympathetic have-nots (locals from the fishing village), all decked out in retro duds and conventions. Is Harrison’s 1938 dirty-diaper scandal a stand-in for septic problems at the Surf Lodge?
Floating uncomfortably in “Montauk” between the upper and lower classes is our Beatrice, a farm girl from Pennsylvania who has married into money, oodles of it. Your classic outsider, peering in.
As “Montauk” opens, Beatrice, all of 27, is being offloaded at Montauk Manor for the summer like a piece of old luggage by her banker husband, Harry Bordeaux. He’ll show up on the weekends for hunting and cards and excessive drinking, while she is instructed to spend her days sucking up to the other society wives.
Despite her good looks and intelligence, Beatrice lacks confidence, which makes her likable as well as maddening. One of the pleasures of “Montauk” is watching this young woman grow a spine.
Harrison incorporates Montauk’s early 20th century history, particularly developer Carl Fisher’s transformation of “The End” into a getaway destination, with panache. Harry sees investment opportunities in Fisher’s financial struggles and is dying to build high-rises on the beach, a plan his wife dislikes.
Beatrice’s path to self-discovery comes as she explores Montauk’s natural beauty, and she’s led there by her upstairs-downstairs friendship with Elizabeth, a laundry woman at the Manor.
Meanwhile, our intrepid heroine meets Mr. Rosen, a Manhattan newspaper editor, and before you can say Hedda Hopper, Beatrice, a Vassar dropout, is penning a gossip column about Montauk under a pseudonym. (Rosen also provides an opportunity for Harrison to address anti-Semitism among the glittering summer crowd and to acknowledge the gathering war clouds.)
There is a lot of plot packed into this summer read. Harry, Beatrice soon learns to her naive horror, is cheating. Her hilarious modern friend Dolly tells her to get over it; all men cheat.
Beatrice can’t get pregnant, either, and a moronic Manhattan gynecologist suggests it’s because she’s too old. Then there is the grief Beatrice feels over her brother Charlie’s death in a car accident years earlier, and Harry’s escalating nastiness.
But wait, we haven’t mentioned the biggest plot twist of all, when Beatrice goes … to the lighthouse. (Yes, Virginia Woolf lurks here; Beatrice is even reading Woolf’s unnamed new book, which in 1938 would have been the feminist anti-war tract “Three Guineas.”)
Waiting at the Montauk lighthouse is Thomas, the alluring, rugged, mysterious lighthouse keeper who is everything Harry is not.
A very rushed final 60 pages crams in a masquerade ball, the Hurricane of 1938, numerous breathtaking revelations and that menacing Chekhovian gun.
Nicola Harrison, you wouldn’t break our poor hearts, would you?
Nicola Harrison discusses 'Montauk'
WHEN | WHERE Tuesday, June 18 at 2 p.m., Syosset Public Library, 225 South Oyster Bay Rd., Syosset
INFO Free, 516-921-7161, syossetlibrary.org