Summer Sisters and Sarah Conley
I haven’t read two books at once in a really long time, but I feel like I was kind of fated to read these two together. See, I started Ellen Gilchrist’s Sarah Conley, and then I had to go to New Jersey for the weekend, where my friend Anna, a dyed-in-the-wool Joisey girl, lives. Point Pleasant, to be exact.
For those of you not in the Northeast, people who live in New York City, a scant 100 miles away by car, will sit in traffic for three, four hours to sit on a New Jersey beach.
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(I know this, because I was stuck in the same traffic for four and a half hours, and I live half an hour north of the city.)
I take this as solid evidence that Point Pleasant, New Jersey must be the most amazing beach in the world, and, therefore, the home of people who must know what a good beach read is. Anyway, I didn’t bring Sarah Conley to the beach, because it’s a library book, and I didn’t want it to get all salt-water damaged and sandy. I borrowed one of Anna’s books. As I mentioned, Anna, by dint of living in Point Pleasant, is a connoisseur of beach reads. I borrowed Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters.
I plowed through Summer Sisters in about a day and a half, and read the rest of Sarah Conley in the remaining day and a half at home in White Plains, and by the end of the three days, I was completely confused. I think this is because they are the same book.
I’m being facetious. Kind of. Both books are about two girls, one rich, one poor. The rich girl takes the poor girl under her wing, and both poor girls end up being kinda-wards of the rich families. There are two men in each book, one for each girl, obviously. And there is complicated family dynamic in both books. Both poor girls in each book end up doing really well for themselves, both in New York City. Both poor girls are driven, determined personalities, although Judy Blume’s Victoria is much more of a victim than Ellen Gilchrist’s Sarah Conley.
At the end of the day, though, one book is about the nostalgia of the 1970s and the kind of free-wheeling summer most of us only dreamed about, and the other is about a complicated woman trapped in the world she’s worked so hard to create for herself, in kind of a Ayn-Rand I-am-the-master-of-my-own-destiny weirdness.
Both sort of made me a little seasick. Blume’s writing style seems to be forced, a far cry from the friendly tones I remember in the books I devoured all through my growing-up years, and everything seems contrived. This book may have worked better as a commentary on the stark differences between the rich folk who inhabit Martha’s Vineyard in the summer and the year-round islanders, but Blume doesn’t do social commentary, she does relationships. On top of that, she cops out of having to give depth to her characters by telling the story from their point of view, but using all the same voice and leaning on the gimmick of labeling each differing POV with the character’s name. I was disappointed–this sort of thing seems so below her.
By contrast, Ellen Gilchrist’s sparse prose brought me right back to Dashiell Hammett, or maybe the Perry Mason series, throwing me for one heck of a temporal loop, since Sarah Conley is based primarily in the mid-90s. And, however much I enjoyed getting to know Sarah and her own brand of handling her life, I grew easily tired of her incapability to make a decision and Gilchrist’s willingness to indulge it. We are allowed several very compelling scenes of Sarah Conley as a younger woman, including the great opening scene, showing her, at 13, deftly writing columns for the local paper and managing her inter-personal relationships with both ease and panache, and it’s in these experiences that we’re truly vested in her. Later, I’m just frustrated that she still seems to be stuck in the same existential glut she was always stuck in.
I am very impressed by Gilchrist’s capability to outline several complicated personalities and situations in very few words. Her style is a lesson in tacitness that even Calvin Coolidge could have learned from.
There are a few distinct anachronisms where both writers dropped in what seemed like unneccessary details: Caitlyn kicks off her Tevas in the chapter that’s dated 1982-1983, but Tevas weren’t invented until 1984, and Robert, Sarah Conley’s young lover, lists his entire phone number, complete with then-cutting-edge 917 area code, in a letter to her. Totally jarring.
At the end of the day, I suppose I enjoyed both books enough to want to take either of them to the beach. But, see, I don’t live on a beach, and there aren’t always pretty boys and ever-moving water to be distracted by, so I think I’ll leave these both at home the next time I go.