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There’s a particular, almost wistful feeling that runs through a family story that takes place at a summer home. Unlike the short-range intensity of a drama that unfolds over, say, a Thanksgiving weekend, a family tale that develops during heat-drenched, open-ended days offers characters who are allowed to emerge through small, apparently mundane moments as well as electrifying ones.
Ursula DeYoung, who grew up on the Massachusetts coast and currently resides in Cambridge, writes knowingly of those languid months when a day of the week could as easily be a Wednesday as a Sunday. In “Shorecliff,” her first novel, the vague calendar seems to influence the action as much as any personality.
“Shorecliff” is set in 1928 Maine. Members of the Hatfields, an upper class, formerly very wealthy clan, arrive from New York and various points in New England to summer at the family’s coastal estate (called Shorecliff). The story is told through the eyes of Richard, the youngest cousin, now looking back on his 13-year-old self. Being the only child of a loving mother (a Hatfield) and a humorless prig of a father, Richard considers the Hatfield side a vital part of his life. His ten cousins and seven aunts and uncles on vacation are caring, annoying, witty, helpful, and entertaining.
The first hundred pages or so move slowly as low tide changing to high, but DeYoung keeps you engaged by developing many distinct personalities and creating some appealing subplots. It also feels like something, maybe a storm, maybe just a squall, is forming just beyond the horizon of the current paragraphs. After all, Richard had opened the story by saying this was the summer that changed him forever, and not just because he was at an excruciatingly vulnerable age.
It turns out Richard’s descriptions of his extended family and his place in it are actually the purpose of his chronicle. This is not a family saga so much as it is a family portrait of a pivotal time, one that exposes secrets of the older generation and reshapes relationships among the younger one. No spoilers here, but I will say the revelations are poignant and avoid cliché. This is primarily due to DeYoung’s talent at so fittingly connecting everyone’s actions and choices to the cultural mores of the era — an era in which a boy could scandalize his aunts simply by swearing, and a girl could do the same by donning a bathing suit with “nothing but two thin straps to hold it up and an almost nonexistent skirt.”
For good or ill, in 1928 a seaside house on a cliff is truly its own world, untouched by the electronic devices that currently distract us. Shorecliff does have a telephone (in an ornate wood and glass phone booth), and there is one “rattletrap” car for the occasional trips to town.
To amuse themselves, the cousins, ranging in age from 13 to 21, hold competitive croquet matches; hike and swim along the shore; and loll about the bedrooms playing cards and gossiping about the aunts and uncles and any cousin not currently in the room. The pack of them are left on their own enough to carry out a few memorable adventures; or, as Richard notes, “There are few things more satisfying than reliving danger when it is safely over.”
Richard is often more observer than participant, because “the interactions between the players were always so much more interesting than the game itself.” He’s taken a full book bag with him for recreational reading, but his most used book is his dictionary, a key tool for deciphering his cousins’ banter and his aunts and uncles’ conversations about New York society. He looks up words he’s never heard before, like “nymphomaniac” and “proposition” and “minx.” Discussions heard and overheard retune his ears to understand what’s truly being said by his elders; the far more interesting meanings that bubble beneath spoken lines.
Beyond one lovely teenage girl at a nearby farm, there are no other young people around. The unvaried company fosters some bickering and jealousy, and for two of the younger cousins, it also transforms older-cousin worship into unsettling, though unrequited, crushes. Perhaps having a radio or more trips to town would have been healthy additions to the vacation.
DeYoung endows each character with enough depth so that as family revelations emerge, you focus less on the Aha! moment and more on how differently each cousin absorbs the impact of family secrets held and revealed.
Although set in July and August, “Shorecliff” feels like a book to read in fall or winter, when you also have some distance from summer, and may want a reminder, written with grace and compassion, of what it feels like to yearn and stumble, and grow, finally, past 13.
Click here for an excerpt of "Shorecliff."
Carol Iaciofano’s book reviews and op-ed columns have appeared in publications including The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, and The Hartford Courant. She is also a co-author of the pop culture computer anthology, “Digital Deli.”
This program aired on September 2, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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