When you've been reading Southern novels as long as I have, you'll find that they fall into a number of predictable categories. There is the coming of age novel, in which a young boy or girl learns some unexpected truths and begins the often uncomfortable process of growing up. There are novels of life in the pre- and post-Civil War South. Novels in which naive girls are drawn into mysteries that force them into frightening situations they never dreamed of. And then there are the life-is-a-mess-but-nothing-that-a-month-at-the-beach (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia) won't clear up. This is one of the latter.
In "Summer Rental," we have four different stories and four different women with problems. They come together at Ebbtide, a beach house at Nags Head, N.C., and we are quickly filled in on the nature of their dilemmas.
Ellis has just lost her job because the bank where she labored happily for 11 years has merged with a competitor, and there is no place for her in the new set-up. She is 33 years old, divorced and hasn't been "with a man" for many years. She is ready for an adventure.
Maryn is running away from a husband who threatened to kill her. She learns he has been stealing large sums of money from the company they both work for, and in her haste to escape before he carries out his threat, she has inadvertently taken his laptop, which contains the money. She calls herself Madison to avoid discovery.
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Julia is a 30-something fashion model, past the swimsuit age but still beautiful enough to get work, who is fleeing the photographer who wants desperately to marry her. She loves him, sort of, but isn't sure marriage is for her. A "girls only" vacation will stall him for awhile.
The fourth woman is Dorie, who has left the husband she still loves because he has fallen in love with a man. To further complicate her life, she finds out she is pregnant. She hasn't told him.
As luck would have it, Ebbtide is owned by a handsome young man named Ty who is down on his luck. He makes a skimpy living working at a bar and dabbling in the stock market, but faces a forced sale of Ebbtide if he doesn't come up with a lot of money.
The four women's worlds collide when Madison stops for lunch in the Picky Pelican, the same restaurant Dorie has chosen. They sit next to each other at the counter. Madison asks her advice on finding a place to stay, and Dorie impulsively asks her to join her and the other women at Ebbtide. The other women are upset at first, but Madison wins them over. They do not know she has $100,000 in stolen money, a gun and a murderer on her tail.
Then sex rears its ugly head. Ty, who conveniently is living in the garage next door, looks over the new arrivals and picks out Ellis. Almost before we know it, they are together, and while true love does not always run smooth, we can be confident that it will all work out.
Dorie, despite her pregnancy, is drawn to the young man from the sheriff's office who has been asked to keep an eye out for Madison's vengeful husband. Julie's persistent boyfriend shows up, as does Madison's husband. The gun comes into play, but nobody we care about is eliminated. It will be no surprise to hear the author finds enough happy endings to make sure everybody gets one.
This is what is known as a "beach read." Like most of them, it is written by a Southern girl with three names (think of Anne Rivers Siddons, Patti Callahan Henry, Dorothea Benton Frank) and is filled with loving descriptions of Lowcountry life. It moves along effortlessly toward its inevitable conclusion. These women are good storytellers, and such tales are not easy to write (bestselling author David Baldacci made something of a mess of it with his recent "One Summer"), and they liven up an afternoon by the shore. I'm sure more will come along in the next few months, but until they do, this one will do just fine.