Arts & Entertainment, Last Word

A Beach Bag of Books

By Miriam R. Kramer

Who decides what makes for a beach book? Perhaps some save time for serious reads during their yearly holidays, but many think that beach novels could accidentally be left in the sand covered with lotion and no harm done. These days, though, the beach book might be on an e-reader, so it’s simply left to be crowded to the back of your content list and forgotten when new works take its place. In any case, here are some new publications from which to pick, some of which may resonate long after July and August are memories.

First up is actress Jennette McCurdy’s unsparing memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died. Her fast-moving, compelling work looks at her relationship with her stage mom and dysfunctional family. Her anxious, unfulfilled mother focuses on her goal of making Jennette a star, taking her to her first audition at six years old. In trying to please Mom, Jennette does everything she can to perform to standard, eventually ending up on a Nickelodeon series called iCarly, followed by the spinoff Sam & Cat alongside Ariana Grande. Her mother, who has no boundaries, goes as far as bathing her and her brother until they are teenagers.

As she grows up, Jennette develops addictions and a serious eating disorder to relieve the pressure, rejecting therapy until she has no choice when she feels herself slipping away.

Although I have not seen her TV series, I was drawn in by the outrageous title, which represents her pitch black humor. McCurdy’s look back is far more nuanced than the title in sorting her feelings about a mother she loved and feared. It is also funny enough to make her palatable and admirable as the survivor of a bizarre, pressured childhood.

Then comes Ruth Ware’s novel The It Girl. I speed read naturally and automatically slow down some for the works that matter to me. I read it fairly recently and very quickly. In this case, I vaguely remember that it’s a whodunit about a murder of a sparkling young woman who has everything, as told by a roommate at Oxford who may have contributed to the wrong person being convicted. It is the perfect book to glance at in between looking at the waves or leave at the beach house, finished or unfinished.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s recent book Romantic Comedy may be optioned for a rom-com movie, but I will not be there to see it. Her book follows a female writer, Sally Milz, who pens sketches for The Night Owls, a comedy show that is obviously based on Saturday Night Live. The book aims to turn on its head the truth that disheveled, shlubby male performers or writers (read Pete Davidson) form relationships with beautiful, polished female hosts (read Ariana Grande). According to this rule, when Sally meets the kind, attractive musical guest, Noah Brewster, to go over sketch ideas, she resists the notion that he could ever be interested in her, an ordinary looking, anonymous writer.

As you might expect, this novel flips the script, and Sally finally succumbs to the idea that her humor and personality could be exactly what Noah needs. After an initial attraction that goes nowhere, they start to get to know one another online during the pandemic, and Sally begins to shine as she opens up to this surprisingly human rock star.

This book annoyed me. A lot. I wanted to like it. I love good romantic comedies. They are so hard to get right. I enjoyed the wish fulfilment idea for this book and wanted to suspend my disbelief. Sittenfeld’s concept of a relationship developing despite and perhaps even because of the pandemic is charming. I wanted to read this book and enjoy myself.

Sittenfeld herself is not naturally a comedy writer, though, if this book is indicative. Sally’s witticisms are not funny enough or even endearing. Noah seemed too good to be true. The conversations Sally has with her beau-to-be have some depth, but overall I found her an irritating, flat character. That being said, many reviewers disagree with my impression of the book—it has been a hit—so you may want to see if you number among them.

I recently picked up Ann Napolitano’s new novel Hello Beautiful, a story about the Padavanos, four working class Italian-American sisters, their parents, and William Waters, the WASP they come to know when the oldest, Julia, marries him after meeting him at Northwestern University.

A family saga set in Chicago and New York, it would not have automatically attracted me, but I gave it a chance. I recommend it for its stories about the bonds among the sisters—their natural closeness and the estrangements that almost sever their ties—along with the story of William, the reticent young man who becomes a de facto Padavano.

William may be my favorite character. In his lifelong relationship with basketball, a close-knit team is a family that saves him, along with his relationship with the sisters. They each help him learn who he is and what he wants to be.

For a tale that is a twist on Little Women, Ann Napolitano writes plot here in a way that is atypical and modern enough to be completely believable. For all the tumultuous family drama, Hello Beautiful is lovely and hopeful, a story in which endings are almost always beginnings. Family, however odd or occasionally dysfunctional, envelops the Padavanos everywhere they go, yet in a way that grounds them and lets them grow.

Hello Beautiful will engage and absorb you if you sit on the sand or by the lake, even with distractions, and you may even think about it afterwards. To my mind, that is the best kind of beach book—one that doesn’t waste your time and is sufficiently well-written not to put you to work.

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