Talk about an attention-grabbing opening scene! It’s the Morning After the Night Before, and respected OB-GYN Ellen Markowitz has just woken up in bed with Hall Talbot, her good friend and boss. Ellen has nurtured a secret crush on Hall ever since she moved from New York City to the small Maine town of Shelter Rock Cove three years ago, but everyone knows that he is still in love with Annie Galloway despite her recent happy marriage to Sam Butler. Ellen is all too aware of that fact; during their intense lovemaking the night before, Hall called out Annie’s name at a rather inopportune moment (as if there is ever a good moment to utter the wrong woman’s name).
Ellen is determined to lick her wounds and pretend that nothing happened, but Hall has other ideas. He really has gotten over Annie, despite his ill-advised slip, and he’d like to explore a relationship with Ellen. Unfortunately, Ellen has plenty of reasons to keep her heart closely guarded. Small-town gossip is fierce in Shelter Rock Cove, and Ellen doesn’t want to risk the reputation and acceptance she has carefully cultivated during the past three years. Then there’s the fact that Hall has already been married three times to women who all gave up when they realized they couldn’t compete with the object of his unrequited love. Finally, Ellen’s wayward half-sister, Deirdre, has just shown up in town with a hundred-pound dog named Stanley in tow, and Ellen is drawn back into a web of complex family dynamics that she has tried to avoid for years. Once Ellen begins to come to term with the past, she’s finally able to accept Hall’s gentle but determined courtship.
A sequel to 2002’s A Soft Place to Fall, Girls of Summer is another strong effort from one of today’s best Women’s Fiction authors. Despite the unorthodox beginning, there’s much more to the novel than a love story – in fact, that may be its weakest aspect. The book engages the reader primarily because of its exploration of Ellen’s past and her relationship with Deirdre and another half-sister, Mary Pat. As a teenager, everything Ellen thought she knew about her family was wiped out in one moment, and she has spent the past 20 years trying to deal with the truth about her heritage. Deirdre’s surprise reappearance in her life gives Ellen the opportunity to finally figure out the boundaries of love and loyalty. A competent, caring but gently self-deprecating physician who still sees each new birth as a miracle, Ellen is the type of realistic heroine that readers can easily identify with and support.
Bretton also tells portions of the story from the point of view of Deirdre, a complex, not always likeable free-spirited musician who realizes she’s a total screw-up but doesn’t know any other way to behave. Adopting a huge dog on impulse and then asking Ellen to pet-sit while she takes a job at a resort is typical behavior, but her actions make perfect sense in the context of her past. Not only does Deirdre get a chance to grow up, she’s also the beneficiary of the book’s best romance with a hunky mechanic who has his own secrets and troubled past.
The only character I had trouble warming up to was the oft-married Hall. His behavior in this book is exemplary and charming, but I couldn’t get past the three ex-wives, even if he is portrayed as a deeply involved, caring father of his four (!) daughters. Perhaps Bretton wasn’t planning to tell his story when she wrote A Soft Place to Fall, but she couldn’t change the basic facts for Girls of Summer: he’s a three-time loser. Unfortunately, it’s hard to root for a hero who has ruined three marriages while carrying a futile torch for an unavailable woman. And although it’s not directly mentioned, astute readers who do the math will easily ascertain that Hall is at least 10 years older than Ellen, a fact that would have given me a few second thoughts.
Fortunately, Hall isn’t the only game in town in this insightful novel. Bretton excels at Women’s Fiction that engages the emotions without manipulating them. It may be creeping towards the holiday season, but I highly recommend that discriminating readers pay a visit to these Girls of Summer.