My husband first pointed out Fishers Island to me. We were newlyweds, visiting his parents on the shoreline of southeastern Connecticut, and Fishers was a green clump hovering a few miles across the water of Long Island Sound. At the time, he was working on Wall Street, and his boss—a Dutchwoman—was renting a house on Fishers for the summer. “It’s weird, though,” he told me. “It’s not the kind of place you want to rent a house, not unless you know people. No restaurants, no hotels. The best beaches are private. Not much to do unless you belong to the golf club.”
As the years went by, more tidbits about Fishers came my way. Unlike Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard or the Hamptons, this New England summer retreat doesn’t want to be on your list of exclusive enclaves of the rich and mighty. It’s a bit like Fight Club—the first rule about Fishers Island is, you don’t talk about Fishers Island. You buy a house there and you pass it down the generations, and you quietly return to this house, summer after summer, while the outside world churns on around you. Or else your family moved to Fishers decades ago to open a business or join the fishing fleet or farm a patch of land (this was many decades ago indeed) and you’re still there, plying your trade, sending your kids to the tiny local school, hunkering down for the lonely winter.
Well. As an anthropology major, I find human cultures pretty interesting. You might say my books, taken as whole, present the entire first half of the twentieth century on a progression of cultural transformation, as the romanticism of the nineteenth century gets swallowed and spat out by modernism, by two world wars and economic depression, by suffrage and television and automobiles and everything else. Take the 1950s. My British grandmother, having lived the first forty years of her life in Japan and India, an adventure-prone member of the colonial elite, came at last to London in 1948 and found it a slow death. “The Twenties and Thirties were a wonderful time to be a woman,” she used to fume. “And then the Fifties came, and it’s as if we fell asleep!” (Emphasis hers, believe me.)
But you can imagine why, can’t you? After all that turmoil, mightn’t Western civilization want to catch its breath for just a moment? Mightn’t it yearn for the past, when you could depend on certain things, when your status was more or less fixed and the institutions around you weren’t crumbling and rebuilding? Human cultures exist in struggle between those opposing impulses, to preserve and to innovate, and each one is necessary to survival. Each one gains control and submission by turns. On an island like Fishers, it’s all about preservation. It’s all about holding back the tide, it’s about keeping the forces of ugly change from your shore. And having been introduced by marriage into the particular culture of the East Coast WASP, with so much at stake in the old order, I wanted to merge these two ideas—Western culture in a state of upheaval, WASP culture digging its toes into the sand—into a novel.
So The Summer Wives was conceived, and a place I called Winthrop Island, inspired by—but not identical—to the real-life Fishers in Long Island Sound. On Winthrop, in the summer of 1951, a naïve teenager named Miranda Schuyler falls in love for the first time: not with a suitable boy from one of the summer families, but a charismatic young man from the local fishing fleet, a lobsterman who’s got a complicated family history of his own, as it turns out. The love affair ends in catastrophe, and in 1969 Miranda returns to Winthrop as a world-weary woman, prepared at last to find justice for the man she once loved. It is a novel about islands, real and imagined, and about women caught in a particular moment in history, a particular tide in human culture. It’s about two different classes existing side by side, and two sets of lovers side by side, and how each strains to bridge the chasms between them.
I hope you’ll pick up a copy of The Summer Wives for your reading list, that you’ll enjoy its twists and turns, its passions, and its deeper layers, and that you’ll love these characters and this story as much as I loved creating