“The Summer House,” by Lauren Denton

Lauren Denton

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

On one hand, The Summer House (Thomas Nelson, June 2020) has a simple plot—an unlikely friendship between two women sparks a second chance at happiness for both. On the other the hand, the plot is as complex as human emotions. And that is where the richness of The Summer House truly lies—in the intricate, evolving emotional lives of its two protagonists, Lily Chapman Bishop and Rose Carrigan.

Lily is young and newlywed, childless and jobless. One morning she wakes up and finds that her husband has left her, leaving only a short goodbye note and the legal papers for a divorce. Soon after that, she learns she must find a new place to live within days as the house lease is tied to her husband’s job, which he has also abandoned with no forwarding address. Lily has no family left, and she and the departed husband had just recently moved to Baldwin County in Alabama. Lily has yet to make friends, or even acquaintances who could help her. She has no choice but to start over—alone.

Rose is no longer young—though at 68, she’s not yet elderly and is physically robust. Her husband left her forty years ago, and she hardened her heart against the world. Childless and estranged from the brother she once adored, her only real emotional connections are with her nephew and his five-year-old daughter. Yet she is secure financially and even has a modicum of comfort in her well-guarded emotional isolation. She has a choice—stay comfortably numb behind her safe walls or open her heart and evolve.

The two women connect when Lily applies for a job as a hairstylist at Safe Harbor Village, a retirement community Rose manages and is half-owner of, along with her ex-husband. Rose is reluctant to hire Lily for any number of reasons, but something about the young woman touches Rose. Against her better judgment, she hires Lily. Since a cottage comes with the hair salon, Lily moves into the Village.

Lily might be the only young person among the retirees, but she soon discovers she is not the youngest-at-heart. Most of the residents have lost their spouses—or are losing a spouse to dementia—yet they have not lost their joie de vivre. In an interesting contrast to Rose, the residents embrace their lives, each other, and nature in a series of activities which foster friendships among them. One of the many lovely scenes in the book champions this spirit when some women take off on a pontoon boat, picnicking and swimming in the warm waters of Bon Secour Bay.

Stern-faced and aloof, Rose has made herself an outcast among these women and the rare men among the villagers. While she feels the distance between herself and the others, she acutely suffers the estrangement between herself and her brother. Yet she does not know what to do about it, especially since her own treachery decades before caused the family breach.

Lily, who is genuine and generous, open-heartedly accepts invitations from the many women in the village. In short order, Lily’s hair salon becomes a social center for people to gather. Just as Rose was the catalyst for Lily’s new life, so Lily becomes the catalyst for Rose’s welcome back among the village’s women. Rose’s nephew prods her toward making other amends.

The dominant themes in the book concern personal growth, second chances, forgiveness, and the value of friendships, but Rose’s nephew (divorced) and an older gentleman nicknamed Coach might offer the two women new opportunities at romance—though there are plenty of hurdles in the way.

The Summer House is a tender book, sweetly told by an author with a gift for a well-written sentence and an honest voice. There is an evocative, feel-good quality about the story and the characters are well-drawn and sure to resonate with female readers. For all that it is good about it, however, The Summer House is also a bit ordinary. But then, maybe that every-person quality is part of its charm, too.

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