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Beach house foam
on July 13, 2008
Jane Green tends to write write fluffy beach reads, the sort of books that get turned into equally fluffy TV movies.
And in "The Beach House," she links together a series of storylines that could have easily made up their own books, with a warm'n'fuzzy sentimental core in an ancient Nantucket house. Unfortunately it begins to come unravelled about halfway through, and some of those storylines simply rush to the finish line without bothering to spin up a satisfactory conclusion.
Eccentric widow Nan Powell is faced with selling her beloved old house Windermere, with its memories of her beloved albeit gambling-addicted hubby. The alternative: take in boarders for money, and fend off the developers who want to tear down Windermere for McMansions.
At about this time, her son Michael returns home after an ill-fated affair with his boss's clingy wife, who now wants a commitment from him. And among the boarders are Daff, a newly-divorced wife and mother who is seeking "herself," and Daniel, a nervy young man who has just realized that he is gay, and is struggling to deal with this. His young wife Bee, who is understandably upset by her husband's distance, is still ignorant of this.
As time winds on -- and the developers circle around Nan's run-down mansion -- the various people begin to relax and open up to each other, like members of a family. But then a series of crises hit -- Bee's father is badly injured, Daff's daughter is arrested, and Michael's desperate former lover shows up with some shocking news for him (yes, you can probably guess what). And even Nan is faced with an old face from her past, who she thought was gone forever....
"The Beach House" has more than enough plot -- any of its subplots would make a decent novel, and Green winds together a series of them with some tenuous links. Jewelry stores, yuppie marriage counseling, and an empty house post-divorce are all explored in detail, as the characters' lives start spinning out of control. And she tackles some of the nastier aspects of adultery and moving on, such as disaster dates and a tantrum-throwing teenager.
But when all the characters get to Nantucket, Green seems to lose some of her inspiration. She rushes through the last quarter of the book after a leisurely build-up. And she seems vaguely embarrassed by the prospect of a big emotional scene -- big shattering events are dealt with via a phone call, a horrifying betrayal is handled by a few sniping comments and general shunning. One character even conveniently expires to avoid dealing with the general baggage.
This is particularly troublesome in Daniel's story -- his coming-out and tentative explorations into the gay subculture is both wrenching and intriguing, as you wonder what this loving father will do to avoid hurting his wife and kids. But once he's out'n'proud, then Green shies away from actually dealing with it, or with his attraction to the conveniently hunky Matt. The drippy "let's not have sex because I want a commitment" scene is simply absurd.
As for the characters, they're a mixed bag. Nan is the biggest problem -- she's not really eccentric, and she's not really nurturing. Yet Green has her randomly flip-flop between being an eccentric old free spirit, and being an earth mother-type. Not that it's very plausible that her tomato garden could instantly turn a spoiled, shrieking, shoplifting regressed teenager into a little angel overnight.
On the other hand, Daniel and Bee are explored with painful, beautiful detail, as he struggles to deal with his homosexuality and she struggles with the revelations about what their marriage was, and where this leaves her as a desirable woman. Too bad Michael is an insensitive and self-absorbed jerk who strings along a married woman until she ditches her hubby, and Daff loses her tragic wronged-woman dimensions as soon as she shrugs off Michael's adulterous liaison. Who cares if that's the sort of thing that broke up her marriage? He's hot and has tight abs!
"The Beach House" has potential and plot to burn, but the rushed final lap and a couple puttered-out storylines leave you frustrated. Here's hoping the next try is longer and more passionate.