A Literal Take on the “Beach Read”

Stories about summer vacation, to read while on summer vacation.

Calling something a “beach read” is usually a backhanded compliment: It’s a fluffy book you recommend only because it requires about as much attention as watching a syndicated episode of Friends. The list below, however, represents a more literal take on summer reading—each of these stories is about going away for vacation. It’s a list tailor-made for narcissists who want their reading to reflect their situation but that’s also varied enough to give just about everyone a new idea for the dog days.

Goodbye, My Brother,” by John Cheever
In his short stories, John Cheever returns again and again to the subject of affluent New Yorkers summering in New England. It’s a topic that might seem boring and distant to the ranks of the second-home-less, but in his hands these stories are exquisite parables of desperation, loss, and the decline of the moneyed class after World War II. The best of these is the first in his collected stories, “Goodbye, My Brother,” about a family that has gathered together for the first time in years in their home on a Massachusetts island. The Pommeroys descend from “a cousinage of old men and women who seemed to hark back to the dark days of the ministry,” and that legacy of guilt haunts the narrator as he tries to reconcile with his brother, Lawrence, who plans to sell his equity in the home. There is no better writer on the subject of nostalgia and bygone youth—something to which even the city-bound can relate.—Chris Wilson, associate editor

The Diamond as Big  as the Ritz,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Percy Washington’s father is rich, really rich. In fact, as classmate John Unger discovers when he goes home with Percy for summer vacation, daddy Washington is the richest man in the world: He owns “a diamond bigger than the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.” Though this is in some ways a typical Fitzgerald story about a regular-ish kid seeing how the obscenely wealthy live, the fun here is in the Solomonic proportions: a silver-walled living room, massive marble steps, rose-scented air, a walking stick with a single large opal for a grip, a tilting bed that slides John into to a crystal-lined bath, and a flawless love interest, “a girl who seemed … the incarnation of physical perfection.” For those disgusted by these excesses: Just plough through to the end, when the gaudy empire crumbles.—Juliet Lapidos, associate editor 

Sunstroke and Other Stories, by Tessa Hadley
Three of the most memorable stories in this Tessa Hadley collection involve holidays in Welsh or English summer cottages, well-worn places with sandy floors, striped Habitat sheets, and sagging verandas. If, like me, you suffer from beach-cottage envy, you may be titillated. But this isn’t just literary shelter porn; the real thrill of these stories (in addition to the title story, see “Phosphorescence” and “A Card Trick”) is watching vicariously as responsible women get drunk on summer and restless and a little lusty. Janie, a mother of three small children, pauses on a meandering stroll back from the village pub to make out with a stranger. Gina, an awkward, brainy 18-year-old, holes up while everyone else heads to the beach, losing herself in a dirty magazine and a Campari. And Claudia, “a perfectly competent adult,” finds herself flirting with a 13-year-old boy, rubbing her bare feet against his as he rows her around in a boat.—Kate Julian, DoubleX editor

The Go-Between, by L.P. Hartley“Maudsley had never been a special friend of mine, as witness the fact that I have forgotten his Christian name.” But Maudsley, a boarding-school acquaintance, invites young Leo to spend the summer of 1900 at Brandham Hall, then promptly falls ill with what is thought to be the measles, leaving Leo alone with adults who condescend reflexively to his youth and inferior social class. The only grown-ups who treat Leo with any warmth are Maudsley’s beautiful sister, Marian, and a tenant farmer named Ted Burgess. But that’s mainly so they can make Leo an unwitting accomplice to their love affair by sending secret messages back and forth through him. I know no better novel about the special misery of being drawn too closely into another family’s dysfunction. Some vacation! (The 1970 film adaptation, directed by Joseph Losey and written by Harold Pinter, is extremely good, too.)—Timothy Noah, senior writer

The Gar den of Eden, by Ernest Hemingway
I offer Hemingway’s kinkiest novel as Modernism’s bleakest beach book. We meet David and Catherine Bourne as they honeymoon on the Côte d’Azur. “I’m the destructive type,” the unblushing bride says to her husband early on. “And I’m going to destroy you.” She’s flirting and foreshadowing and Freuding; it’s always a good bad sign to hear devil used as a term of endearment. David and Catherine eat the big, long lunches and drink the cold white wine and broil their skin and bake their brains. There is definitely a ménage à trois, possibly a folie à deux, and the story is singular in sketching the side of summer where languor shades into decadence under the high, hard sun. The people at Scribner’s have always said the author left this buttery book unfinished at his death, but it proceeds so leanly that it is difficult to see what might be edited out, and it ends so elegantly that it is impossible to imagine where the couple would go after their (psychotic?) break.—Troy Patterson, television critic

Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri
“Why did you have to wear those stupid shoes?” and “But we could use one of these pictures for our Christmas card this year”: Any summer vacation story that contains those lines understands the hopes of escape that fuel, and so often get quashed by, the family getaway. In the title story of Jhumpa Lahiri’s taut collection Interpreter of Maladies, the Das family—a young American-born Indian couple with three children—sets off with a local driver-interpreter to visit the Sun Temple at Konarak. Even the excitement of encountering monkeys on the hot, dusty trip can’t distract from an undercurrent of marital misery that pulls in the guide, too. But don’t let that deter you. Lahiri’s story, which unfolds in a perfectly focused succession of snapshots, has what vacation slide shows so rarely do: real suspense.—Ann Hulbert, literary editor

First Love,” by Vladimir Nabokov Vladimir Nabokov’s “First Love”—initially published as a short story, later included as a chapter in his memoir, Speak, Memory —is an account of the author’s 1909 trip from St. Petersburg, Russia, to the seaside resort of Biarritz in southwestern France. For readers today, it also offers a journey into the heart of this long-lost era: Nabokov’s razor memory for detail (the look of dummy chocolate bars in the train’s dining car, the sound of his bathing suit flopping to the floor of a beach changing cabin) cuts through his nostalgic canvas so immediately that reading these recollections feels almost like entering into one’s own. The story centers on the 10-year-old Nabokov’s first, chaste romance with a young Parisian girl named Colette, whom he meets while building castles on the wet part of the beach and makes inchoate plans to run away with. “Where did I want to take her?” he now wonders. “Spain? America?” The tug comes in knowing that Nabokov did realize these promises of flight and travel—long after that summer, and Colette, had vanished.—Nathan Heller, copy editor and “Assessment” columnist

Joy in the Morning, P.G. Wodehouse Summer reading is about escape, so that’s why I immediately book passage on the S.S. Wodehouse. A persistent lesson of his fiction is the danger of leaving the comforts of the metropolis for the backward uncertainties of a country estate or seaside France. Joy in the Morning finds Bertie and Jeeves lured to Steeple Bumpleigh in Hampshire, where you can’t throw a brick without “hitting a honeysuckle-covered cottage or beaning an apple-cheeked villager.” What follows concerns affianced lovers, light arson, “delicate matters,” burglars, hedgehogs. As you can gather, it’s a lot more fun than reading Freedom. Shift ho.—Michael Agger, senior editor

The Enchanter, by Lila Azam Zanganeh Too many people think of Nabokov as grave and difficult, as opposed to playful and pleasurable. Call me crazy, but I find reading Pale Fire one of literature’s—one of life’s—pure pleasures. The coherence of language, patterned like the coloration of butterfly wings, is exhilarating. What I like most about Lila Azam Zanganeh’s The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness is that she succeeds in capturing the peculiar kind of delight in Nabokov that lights up the neural pleasure zones.

One of my favorite passages is one in which she conjures up Nabokov speaking happily about his summer vacation butterfly-hunting trips: “I spent a summer in Utah, an untapped paradise of lepidopteral foray: I would walk a dozen miles a day along mountain ridges … the excitement of chasing butterflies as vivid as that of inventing creatures at my writing desk.”

I say “conjures up” because Zanganeh never interviewed Nabokov—he died before she was born. She’s just remarkably good at communicating his delight. The passage sounds as if it could be Nabokov, who did in fact embark regularly on summer vacation butterfly hunts. Zanganeh makes the key V.N. connection: between the visually intoxicating array of butterfly wing patterns he found in the wild and those he created on the page with words. Butterfly hunting as an allegory of writing, or vice versa.
—Ron Rosenbaum, “Spectator” columnist and author, most recently, of How the End Begins