If you’re soaking up the rays on a beach…
We Were Liars
Join up with the Liars, the four privileged friends whose closeness is marred by something that happened one fateful summer. 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 much more interesting.
Or perhaps you’d prefer 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 still haven’t caught the Starz television remake.
If you’re marathoning family gatherings…
One More Thing
B. J. Novak
While you won’t have the luxury of sitting down with a book that demands your undivided attention, you can retain your peace of mind with a collection of short fiction. B.J. Novak’s One More Thing isn’t a misleading title: this thick book is crammed with flash fiction you can read in mere minutes, from pop culture riffs like “Chris Hansen at the Justin Bieber Concert” to thought experiments in “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.
If you’re in the midst of wedding season…
Pick up Anne Tyler’s modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Kate, 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 work. When his lab assistant is threatened with deportation, Dr. Battista cooks up his most outrageous experiment yet: involving Kate and 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 on your lunch break at work…
Tess understands that slog. The 22-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 back waiter, 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 30-year-old millennial 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 under-acknowledged coworkers, Tina’s complacency is replaced by a new (albeit illegal) drive.
If you’re feeling nostalgic for camp…
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
Remember the days when your only summer “job” was to spend all day at camp? In The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, the titular getaway is actually a punishment: 15-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 toward 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 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 the talent that marked them for this special performing arts camp at 15 isn’t as compelling when it comes to auditions, jobs, and fortunes in adulthood.
If you’re away on vacation…
Traveling with family can be a nightmare. If you’re lucky, the only things to fracture your relationships are disagreements over money spent or choosing 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 is told through Rashomon-style contradictory narratives.
The Girl in the Road
If you’re traveling alone, you 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.
I’m glad to see that “beach reads” are finally being taken seriously as a genre. For too long, these books got 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. Now, these novels are being appreciated for their denseness; not as simple distractions but supplements to the summer experience.
Still, we’re oh-so-aware that all summers aren’t created equal. Not everyone makes it to the beach during those hot months, and 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 you’ll find the right book for wherever summer takes you.
Featured Image: @kundoy/Twenty20