I’m glad to see that “beach reads” are finally getting taken seriously as a genre. For too long, these books had gotten a bad rap for being as frothy and forgettable as the soft serve you might grab on the boardwalk more for cooling down than for actual taste. Instead, these novels—romances, sure, but also thrillers and plenty of nonfiction—are being appreciated for their denseness, as not distractions from the beach but supplements to the experience.
But not all summers are created equal. Not everyone makes it to the beach more than a handful of times in the warm months, and as we know, plenty of other responsibilities—jobs, family, the parade of weddings—replace our opportunities for relaxation. Your warm-weather plans may not be the same as your fellow bookworms’, but we guarantee all of you will find the right book for wherever summer takes you. Anything can be a beach read if you try hard enough. So if you find yourself…
Soaking up the rays on a fancy beach…
If you’re fortunate enough to score this kind of upgrade to the typical summer beach day, 1) stay as long as you can, and 2) really lean into this kind of decadence with novels that you can sink into for hours, pausing only to reapply sunscreen.
Join up with the Liars, the four privileged friends whose closeness is marred by something that happened that one summer, in E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars. The beautiful family hiding accidents and secrets—equally destructive—could be any of the picture-perfect clans you’re already people-watching; now, you can imagine what makes their summer vacations ominous. Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls is the kind of gripping mystery, firmed up by a chilling take on time travel, that will make you shiver even with your feet dug into the warm sand. Or perhaps you want to immerse yourself in a centuries-spanning romance. Now’s as good a time as any to catch up with Diana Gabaldon’s epic Outlander series, especially if you’ve been waiting to watch the Starz television series.
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At the pool…
OK, so you didn’t manage to get farther than the local pool—no shame! Hey, I live in a city where all of our public pools are pretty dodgy, so I’m envious of your solid summer plans.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning modern classic (and one of my favorite books to reread) Middlesex checks the same boxes of mystery (with the twistiest family tree you’ve ever seen) and romance (with a heart-aching narrative of first love), all in a seemingly ordinary setting of Detroit, Michigan.
Marathoning through family parties…
I just came off six weeks of celebrating every possible milestone in my fiancé’s family (30th birthday, 60th birthday, graduating med school, getting ordained as a deacon), and am still recovering from the whirlwind of congratulations, conversation, and catered food. The thing is, you trade the opportunity to see dozens of extended family members for any real downtime, and the need to be “on” without a break can really wear on you.
While you won’t have the luxury of sitting down with a book that demands your undivided attention, you can retain your sanity with a collection of short fiction. B.J. Novak’s One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories is not a misleading title: This thick book is crammed with flash fiction that you can read in mere minutes, from pop culture riffs like “Chris Hansen at the Justin Bieber Concert” and “Quantum Nonlocality and the Death of Elvis Presley” to thought experiments in “The Impatient Billionaire and the Mirror for Earth” and “The Best Thing in the World Awards.” You can duck out of a conversation with the excuse to grab more wine and breeze through a short story—then rejoin the party armed with quite the conversation starter.
In the midst of wedding season craziness…
Whether you’re in the bridal party or toasting your family/college friends/coworkers’ nuptials, most of your precious summer time and money is going to these lavish celebrations. The least you can do is treat yourself to a good book to read while traveling to your hometown/out of town/a destination wedding. Your experience of a wedding differs based on who you’re surrounded with, so…
If you’ve got a date: Pick up Anne Tyler’s modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. The Kate who is the (acidic) heart of Vinegar Girl is immediately sympathetic: challenged at the preschool where she works by parents who don’t appreciate her filling their children’s heads with forthright ideas, stuck taking care of the house while her prettier, more vapid sister Bunny has her head in the clouds and their scientist father has his nose buried in his work. When his lab assistant is threatened with deportation, Dr. Battista cooks up his craziest experiment yet: involving the poor Kate in a green-card marriage. The Bard’s wittiest romance blends perfectly with Tyler’s modern commentary on why we get married when it’s not just about love.
If you’re flying solo: You’re not alone. In researching her landmark book All the Single Ladies, Rebecca Traister found that only twenty percent of American women today are married by age 29 (compared to almost sixty percent in the 1960s). Marriage is no longer the automatic (or only) path for young women; furthermore, when given any other option but becoming a wife and homemaker, the historic single ladies she profiles have effected social change on a national scale, from abolition to secondary education. So, the next time a well-meaning relative asks why you didn’t bring a date, you can just hold this book up as your answer.
If this isn’t your first—or even your fifth—wedding this year and bouquets and bridal parties are starting to blur together, crack open Helena S. Paige’s Choose Your Own Adventure erotica A Girl Walks Into a Wedding: As the bridesmaid at your best friend’s wedding (not in a Julia Roberts kind of way), you get your pick of potential dates. Maybe it’s that guy you just met online but feel enough of a spark with to spontaneously invite. Perhaps the older stranger you encountered at a bar would take away some of your stress. And is that the maid of honor who’s been making eyes at you? When you know exactly how the real wedding is going to end, there’s nothing wrong with having a little vicarious fun.
On your lunch break at your summer job (or, you know, your actual job):
Whether you’re working a part-time gig while on a break from grad school or college or are firmly embedded in the workforce, it can be incredibly disheartening to stare out the window at all that sunlight when you’re stuck inside a frigid, air-conditioned office. Whenever you can, take your actual lunch break outside and bring a book!
Tess understands that slog. The twenty-two-year-old narrator of Stephanie Danler’s debut novel Sweetbitter, bright-eyed Tess comes of age in the wine cellar, kitchen, and bar of one of New York City’s most coveted restaurants. Both privileged and put-down as a backwaiter, Tess learns—through her intense attachments to a senior server and an alluringly sullen bartender—that her senses aren’t inaccurate, but her ideas may be.
If you’re stuck working through lunch, supplement your sad desk salad with a vicarious thrill: Camille Perri’s debut The Assistants grants older millennial (at age 30) and perennial assistant Tina the ultimate temptation: using her boss’ expense account to pay off her insurmountable student debt. As she becomes a sort of Robin Hood for her generation of underpaid, overworked, and underacknowledged coworkers, Tina’s complacency is replaced by a new (albeit illegal) drive.
If you’re feeling nostalgic for camp:
Remember the days when your only summer “job” was to spend all day at tennis or theater camp or experience the great outdoors by riding horses, making arts and crafts, and (most importantly) bonding with other kids your age? You may be too old for camp, but that doesn’t mean you can’t revisit that freedom of the seemingly endless summer unspooling ahead of you, the freedom of meeting new people you’d never have encountered otherwise.
In Anton DiSclafani’s The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, the titular getaway is a punishment: Fifteen-year-old Thea Atwell is sent away from home for a reason we spend most of the novel dying to learn, like the best kind of campfire tale that keeps you leaning towards the flames in anticipation. While this story is set in the midst of the Great Depression in 1930, its themes are modern—especially when it comes to Thea’s summer romance and exploration of her burgeoning sexuality.
If your camp memories are less about first kisses (and whatever else) and more about the friendships forged there, pick up Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings. The personalities in this group of teenagers who christen themselves with that very self-congratulatory nickname are sure to provide chapters of fascinating fodder about the intervening decades—especially once they realize that the talent that marked them for this special performing arts camp at fifteen isn’t as compelling when it comes to auditions, jobs, and fortunes in adulthood.
Away on vacation:
You’ve got the best deal of the summer—you get to escape the stresses and bores of daily life for a little while. Make sure you leave room in your suitcase for a couple of compelling reads.
If you’re traveling with friends or family: When families travel together it rarely turns out well: If you’re lucky, the only things to fracture your relationships are disagreements over money spent or different day trips. If you’re not, long-hidden secrets come bubbling up, or forbidden affairs are ignited. Delia Ephron, known for romantic comedies like Hanging Up and You’ve Got Mail, infuses Siracusa with a dark, psychological bent, as two couples’ disastrous summer in the aforementioned vacation spot is told through Rashomon-style contradictory narratives.
If you’re traveling alone: Along with the right clothes, maps, and emergency contacts in your possession, you also need a copy of Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road. A near-future science fiction novel, it’s really a meditation on solo travel (Byrne herself is a prolific and self-assured traveler) as Meena attempts the impossible: journeying from Mumbai to Ethiopia along The Trail, a massive and dangerous bridge spanning the Arabian Sea. While Meena crosses continents, her story contrasts and intertwines with Mariama, escaping east in a caravan across the Sahara. The technology may be futuristic, but the notions of femininity, safety, and travel are all keenly based in the present.
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