Book Review for “Summer on the Bluffs” by Sunny Hostin.
Summary: “Welcome to Oak Bluffs, the most exclusive black beach community in the country. Known for its gingerbread Victorian-style houses and modern architectural marvels, this picturesque town hugging the sea is a mecca for the crème de la crème of black society—where Michelle and Barack Obama vacation and Meghan Markle has shopped for a house for her mom. Black people have lived in this pretty slip of the Vineyard since the 1600s and began buying property in the 1800s, making this posh town the embodiment of ‘old money.’ … But this summer on the Bluffs is different. Ama [aka Amelia Vaux] is moving to the south of France to reunite with her college sweetheart. She is going to give the house to one of her goddaughters and she has invited all three of them to spend the summer with her the way they did when they were kids. Each of the women want the house desperately. Each is grappling with a secret that they fear will make them lose Ama’s approval and the house.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Contemporary, USA – New York, Martha’s Vineyard; Other Categories: Novel, Debut, Diverse Authors, LGBTQA+, African-American, Biracial, #OwnVoices.
So… ever heard of the Shakespeare play “King Lear?” I’m kind of guessing that you might have. If so, even before you start the first page, you’ll see the basic plot of that play in this novel. In that play, the King’s three daughters are all vying for power and to become the King’s heir. In this book, it seems that Hostin has decided to not only update this to the 21st century, but also to tell an #OwnVoices story about Black and Biracial women. Obviously, this is a fairly well-known trope, and has been used in many novels, not the least of which was Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, “A Thousand Acres.” That book takes place in the plains of Iowa, where Larry Cook has to decide which of his three daughters will take over his farm. Here we have three goddaughters hoping to get the keys to Ama’s summer home in Martha’s Vineyard. As far as tropes go, this is one of the better ones.
That said, I’m not a huge fan of “King Lear” in general. See, as a mother of three children (albeit two boys and a girl, and not three girls), I cannot understand how a parent can choose to favor only one of them. But I get that because Lear isn’t a very nice guy, he knows there are reasons why a couple of his girls might not truly love him. This, of course, is where Hostin’s book varies in that Ama is a good and loving godmother (if not almost fairy-like in her helping them), so there’s no reason why each of these three girls wouldn’t love her back – or is there? But one way or another, Hostin’s character development is deceptively deep, and you’ll grow to love all four of them quite quickly. That’s no small achievement for a debut novel. (I’m unsure if I’ll want to read more of the books in this series, but it certainly is an excellent start, to my mind.)
With that out of the way, the question is, what secrets do each of them have that they need to either reveal or hide in order to be the one Ama chooses to get the house. When it came to this, I think Hostin took a bit too much time to get around to the point. For example, if this is taking place in 2019, I can’t imagine that a woman as, well… “woke” as Ama to have any problem with one of her goddaughters being a lesbian. It also didn’t make a huge amount of sense that it was hidden for so long, or that Ama didn’t figure it out on her own. But granted, not everyone is that aware, and even “woke” people of my generation can be a touch surprised when they realize (or find out that) someone that close to them is Gay. Mind you, I could be wrong; perhaps the African American community is a touch less tolerant regarding homosexuality than I thought they’d be – I don’t know. Infidelity and inter-racial relationships, on the other hand, I get could be a problem for Ama.
I also found some problems with the pacing here, which seemed a bit inconsistent. There were sections that felt like they went really fast (and the ending also felt a bit rushed), and then things slowed down and I felt I wanted to have a little less of the thought processes of each of these characters, and a bit more action. However, when the action returned, things went very smoothly. This could be partially because Hostin comes from the world of the law and journalism where the main idea is to tell and explain things, but in fiction we need the author to show us more. I can certainly praise Hostin for overcoming it for the most part, but there are still some sections that show her journalistic and legalistic hand a touch too much.
As for the minor niggles, I had a bit of a problem with a couple of sex scenes that were a touch too graphic for my taste, but that’s just me, and thankfully, Hostin didn’t dwell on them too much (so I was able to quickly skim those parts)! Also, I really don’t think I needed to know the names of every fashion designer who designed the clothes people were wearing – those names mean nothing to me. That wasn’t the only name-dropping I found in this book, but it didn’t really disturb the narrative, so no matter. All told, I have to say that this really was a very good book, and a very good effort for a debut novel. I liked Hostin’s writing style in general, and when she’s in the fictional mode, she really shines here. I think that means that for me, that despite the drawbacks, I can still recommend this book, which I think deserves a very respectable three and a half stars out of five.
William Morrow-Harper Collins released “Summer on the Bluffs” by Sunny Hostin on May 4, 2021. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.
This novel qualifies for the following reading challenges: New Release Challenge (#17).