The ultimate summer book, set in a fictional Watch Hill
I can think of only one other book, until this year’s publication of Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg’s “Eden,” to present a fictionalized account of Watch Hill, our own storied summer community by the sea.
It was in 2002 that William Storandt’s “The Summer They Came” told the story of attempts by some New York developers to turn Watch Hill, or Long Spit, as that book would have it, into a new gay mecca, sort of Provincetown South.
The entertaining tale ended, sagely enough, with the demolition of a fictionalized version of the 1868 Ocean House, which was actually torn down in 2005, to be replaced with a near-replica, which still presides grandly today over the village of seaside mansions.
If “The Summer They Came” squinted a bit into what the future may hold for Watch Hill, “Eden” is a fond but open-eyed look at its past and the pain of preserving tradition in a changing world.
If the denizens of Watch Hill winced at the notion of gay-themed dance music wafting over their dunes in “The Summer They Came,” they might take “Eden,” set in a fictional Long Harbor, R.I., as a gentle kiss.
The book opens with the reigning matriarch of a Pittsburgh family “ensconced in this beloved ancestral home, Eden, for another summer season,” maybe her last.
Eden was built in the '20s, a time when, the book wryly notes, tennis balls were still white. The railroad baron who built it used to announce his arrival in Eden’s seaside drive with a honking of the horn. Cook and nanny were in attendance.
In the opening paragraphs, Becca is cozied up on a favorite down-filled sofa with her unwed pregnant granddaughter, Sarah, confessing that her late husband left her without the financial resources to keep Eden.
“But Becca looked past Sarah, through the large, paned window with a view of the sea. The glass was streaked with salt and sand, and there were cobwebs between the screen and the storm,” Blasberg wrote.
This sort of evocative depiction of old summers in Watch Hill continues throughout the book, as the family story unspools, a kindly salute to the summer traditions of the privileged.
Still, as the book suggests, there are skeletons rattling around in many of the closets of those shingle-style arks in places like Watch Hill, and those who summer that way are just as apt to be thrown by unplanned pregnancies, alcohol abuse and financial setbacks as the rest of us.
“Eden,” a debut novel for Blasberg, has been very well received, from a “masterpiece” blessing by a reviewer in the Boston Herald, to blurbs like this one from novelist Anita Shreve: “A masterfully interwoven family saga with indelible characters, unforgettable stories, and true pathos. Most impressive, there’s not an ounce of fat on this excellent book.”
I had a chance to chat with Blasberg this week, a conversation I enjoyed almost as much as her book.
The writer, who is 51, came late to a fiction-writing career. A graduate of Smith College, her early work was in finance. She later worked for Harvard Business School, writing case histories used in the business classes.
Her work on "Eden" began after a memoir-writing program sponsored by Grub Street, a creative writing center in Boston. She is now on the organization’s board of directors and has been instrumental in bringing an affiliated memoir course to the Westerly Public Library, sponsored with the Watch Hill Memorial Library and Improvement Society.
Blasberg, a mother of three who lives with her husband in Beacon Hill in Boston, does not have roots in Watch Hill as deep as the family in her book, but she has been coming for summers with her family for 20 years. She and her husband built a house here in 2014.
She said she’s always wanted to write the kind of books she loves reading. She has been encouraged by the reception that “Eden” has received. She has been on a summer-long book tour to city bookstores and some of the most prominent beach towns in New England, from Cape Cod and the Islands to the Hamptons.
Her next reading around here will be at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 7 at Bank Square Books in Mystic.
She is well along on a second novel, set in a prominent New England boarding school, where a sex scandal has erupted.
Her first book has been more successful than she ever imagined. But she has no regrets about starting a writing career later in life.
“I have some perspective and maturity and some thick skin,” she said about her book debut with an indie publisher.
“There have been a million nos and no thank yous,” she said about also learning the ropes of book promotion.
I suspect there will be fewer nos for book two.
This is the opinion of David Collins.