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Sunday, May 28, 2023

To Be Enjoyed in a State of Repose, Preferably Near Water

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There’s a scene around the halfway mark of the latest novel by the perennial best seller Elin Hilderbrand, THE FIVE-STAR WEEKEND (Little, Brown, 384 pp., $30), in which five women engage in a sacred ritual of beach vacations: shopping. The connection between them is the recently widowed Hollis Shaw, who invited four women from different eras of her life (high school, college, minivan life and midlife) to her fabulous Nantucket summer home to celebrate friendship and, ultimately, to help Hollis, the food influencer, move into the next phase of life.

Two end up at Mitchell’s Book Corner, where the intimidatingly elegant Gigi wants to buy the sweet try-hard Brooke some smart-girl novels, including one by Maggie O’Farrell, but Brooke is drawn to a novel with a “sky-blue cover” set on Nantucket. (The cover of “The Five-Star Weekend” is sky blue and features a woman in a classy yellow bikini gazing out to sea.) It’s a “beach book,” Brooke notes, exactly what she wants to read while in Nantucket.

Gigi blinks, then remarks that the author (an island local, like Hilderbrand) is very “popular.” Brooke understands this is an insult but doesn’t care. I was already succumbing to Hilderbrand’s easy grace with female friendships and the trope of many beach reads: the slow dawning of the realization that your dead husband was not who you thought he was. This meta aside — a sly skewering of book snobbery — cemented my admiration for this true pro.

There are those who aspire to read the classics on the beach; generally I’m one of them, but no summer has yet been languid enough for me to finish “Bleak House,” so I’m warming to beach reads, in three basic subcategories: Plucky Widows, Easy Enlightenment and Shameless Seaside Setting (with the possibility of overlap). Books in this last group tend to mirror the experience of the IRL beach reader, except with more interesting relationships and better bedding (Hollis aims for every bed she makes to be “as luscious as a bakery confection”). If these books have common themes, they are success and wealth, or vicarious proximity to the same.

Steven Rowley’s THE CELEBRANTS (Putnam, 320 pp., $28) features five mostly seaside gatherings of college friends from the University of California, Berkeley, spanning four decades. The married “Jordans,” a.k.a. Jordy and Jordan, fell in love at Berkeley and now run a powerhouse public relations firm. Craig is an art dealer, Naomi is in the music business and Marielle, the type to bring foster pets to a weekend away, is the only one of the group to raise a child, parentage uncertain.

Their first gathering happens two weeks before the group’s graduation. The friends head to Naomi’s parents’ vacation home in Big Sur, where they collectively grapple with the recent overdose death of the charismatic Alec. Marielle, who was Alec’s girlfriend, suggests that if he could have witnessed the love and grief at his funeral, maybe he’d still be alive. She proposes they stage their own living funerals in the future. “We agree right now to assemble when one of us calls, no questions asked,” she says. The “funerals” will serve as interventions for the flagging spirit.

Over the years, the group tries out Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (at a boutique hotel that was once Elizabeth Taylor’s home), and then New York City; it ultimately lands back in Big Sur as one of the friends faces terminal cancer. The overall mood, no matter how serious the precipitating situation, is forced. The friends shout at one another (in all caps) but stick together even when they don’t seem to particularly like one another. With its minimalist plot, “The Celebrants” has the vibe of a late-career Garry Marshall movie, but with a better-than-usual script.

At the beginning of PIECES OF BLUE (Flatiron, 272 pp., $28.99), a fast-paced, atmospheric charmer from Holly Goldberg Sloan, the Hill family arrives in Hawaii for a new beginning. The mother, Lindsey, has decided that buying a rundown motel, the Mau Loa, is a good way to help her children recover from the death of their tech-bro dad. Paul drowned while surfing back in Oregon, just as his briefly held empire was imploding, leaving her with nothing but an insurance policy and their kids: eye-rolling Olivia, 14; amiable Carlos, 12, named for Carlos Santana; and Sena, 7, who is eerily smart and higher-functioning than the rest of the family.

Between various expensive crises, Lindsey re-examines her marriage to Paul. (It’s so much easier to get over a dead sinner than a dead saint.) Luckily, she has the distraction of her only guest, the grieving widower Chris Young, who is both hot and an excellent amateur handyman. “Pieces of Blue” goes off the rails in its wild last act, but on the way, it checks a lot of boxes, including the alluring Hawaii setting. The novel’s best feature is Sloan’s poignant and amusing glimpses into the children’s interior lives as they grieve and build new lives for themselves.

Crystal Smith Paul’s debut, DID YOU HEAR ABOUT KITTY KARR? (Holt, 416 pp., $27.99), is a slow burn, although it does have a juicy plot revolving around Angelenos so rich they have a Ferris wheel in their backyard. The gossip is that a white Hollywood icon, Kitty Karr Tate, has just died and left her fortune to the three St. John sisters, who are beautiful, talented and Black. The sisters hardly need the money; their father is a producer and their mother an Oscar-winning actress. One of the sisters landed an Academy Award by the time she was 13, and, as the story begins, the eldest, Elise, is a nominee in the midst of Oscar season.

Paul quickly switches gears, taking the narrative to 1930s North Carolina and the story of a teenager named Hazel Ledbetter, orphaned and possessed only of $5 and her great-great-grandmother’s earrings. She is graced with her grandmother’s unusual blue-gray eyes, “proof of forced miscegenation generations before.” Working as a second cook for a wealthy family, Hazel is raped and impregnated by the heir to the family’s tobacco fortune. When her daughter Mary Magdalene is born, she has her mother’s eyes but can (and does) otherwise pass for white.

It takes a long time for the two story lines to converge, and the contemporary drama feels superficial compared with the emotion and heartbreak of Hazel’s and Mary’s stories. “Kitty Karr” is uneven, but this is an ambitious novel, illuminating the complexities of racial identity, particularly what it means to be Black in Hollywood no matter the era. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to know more about Hollywood’s hidden history.

Another debut, THE COLLECTED REGRETS OF CLOVER (St. Martin’s, 320 pp., $28), by Mikki Brammer, might also prompt an urge for research — because its titular heroine has such an unusual and intriguing profession. Clover Brooks is a 36-year-old death doula. She has never been kissed and has only one friend, Leo. He’s 87 and her neighbor in the rent-controlled West Village townhouse that has been home since she was 6 years old, newly orphaned and brought there by her kindly but reserved grandfather. Clover lives with the regret of not being with her grandfather when he died. That was 13 years ago, and since then, she has shepherded dozens of people through death’s door. She’s very good at this work. And very lonely.

After her client-patients die, she jots down notes on what they shared with her in a series of notebooks, marked “Regrets,” “Advice” and “Confessions.” Fun stuff, right?

Actually, yes. This weird, lovely and sweetly satisfying novel has a lot in common with the 1990s rom-coms Clover likes to sedate herself with after a patient dies. It’s engaging and accessible. There’s even a meet-cute involving an upper-crusty guy with a dying grandmother (who, naturally, turns out to be the coolest). But Clover’s emergence from a shuttered life is moving enough to elicit tears, and Brammer’s take on death and grieving profound enough to feel genuinely instructional. There’s even a trip to Maine, my personal favorite seaside location; this one wins for hitting two of my criteria at once.

Mary Pols is a Maine-based writer and editor. She is the author of a memoir, “Accidentally on Purpose.”

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