Summer Darlings by Brooke Lea Foster is a fun, summer read set in the 1960s on the beautiful island of Martha’s Vineyard. Heddy, a young penniless student from Wellesley steps off the boat ready to make money at her nanny summer job. She will be working for one of the richest families on the island and she hopes to make valuable connections. Heddy sees all that is beautiful and fun on this luxurious island with the potential for a wonderful summer ahead. When her college scholarship falls through, Heddy tries to make friends in the wealthy community, hoping to meet well-off, handsome and eligible men. From Ruth, her co-worker, to Gigi, a famous starlet, Heddy learns the ropes and her social life picks up. Romance takes hold, and she must decide between the cool surfer down the beach or the seemingly quiet college student. Heddy envies all the privileged families on the island, but after spending time with the wealthy people of Martha’s Vineyard, she learns that under the veil of money, there is no guarantee of happiness.
It was a joy to spend the summer on the Vinyard with Heddy. She is smart and resourceful, and comes of age during the season, walking away at the end with a renewed sense of self and a way to continue her growth and success. Summer Darlings is a lovely summer tale that gives us a window into the lives of the elegant and wealthy socialites, revealing the dark side of financial advantage, from the perspective of a poor, college aged nanny; perfect for a lazy day at the beach.
Author Q & A
Q: Summer Darlings takes place in the 1960s, yet it has a Great Gatsby vibe, with the fancy parties and the swindling, the secret lovers and the excess. All your characters are layered and complex; how do you come up with each and did you create a description before you started writing the story?
A: I was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 2016 when I came across an advertisement to rent a storied cottage in a town called Vineyard Haven. The cottage was beachfront, there was a mansion on either side, and you could rent it for $14,500 a week. Well, in the 1950s, the cottage was a ramshackle fishing shack, and one of the grand houses belonged to a stage actress. The other was the summer home of the granddaughter to the Standard Oil Fortune.
Those houses inspired me. I could immediately see a WASPY family living in the grand Victorian on one side and a glamorous movie star living in a sprawling beach house on the other, with an eligible bachelor living in between. The characters came quickly after that, and this may sound strange, but I began to hear the voices of Jean-Rose and Gigi McCabe – their conversations, what they would say to each other. Then I began to imagine a young nanny (who became Heddy) arriving on the island to work, and how her view of the island would change over the course of the summer. Ash, one of Heddy’s love interests, came quickly; he would be an affable charismatic handsome leading man, someone that all of the women on the island were noticing, making him irresistible to my heroine.
Q: What gave you the idea to write about the 1960s? How long did it take you to write Summer Darlings?
A: I’ve long been fascinated with this time period. For one, the novel takes place in the summer of 1962, and in November of 1963, JFK was assassinated. The lives of my characters are about to be changed dramatically, and yet they’re living in this bubble where they can’t see it coming. I wanted to freeze time, and take a deep dive into that time period. Women’s roles in the early 1960s are particularly fascinating to me. Staying home was glamourized in popular culture yet so many stay at home mothers were deeply unhappy. To put it in perspective, Betty Friedan’s landmark feminist book The Feminine Mystique is published in February 1963, six months after Heddy leaves the island. So I was excited to have a character like Gigi to emulate some of those feminist ideals: You can live by your own rules. When I discovered that Marilyn Monroe passed away that summer, I knew I had the right time, too. Her death becomes a notch in the climax and helps the reader find their way in the time period.
I wrote the first draft in several weeks, but it was messy and terrible. As a journalist though I knew that was okay. I believe in getting your thoughts and ideas down on paper to figure out what you’re trying to say, what is the narrative arc, how my characters would change. Then I went back and revised, revised, revised. It took me three years of revisions to get the book to where it is today, and that is what I needed to figure it all out. They say that your first book teaches you how to write a novel. That was certainly true with me.
Q: I love that you gave James Taylor and Carly Simon a cameo in the story to give the reader a feel for the times. What type of research did you do for this novel?
A: Research is such an integral (and fun!) part of writing historical fiction. For one, I have a collection of articles from the New Yorker published in the 1950s and 1960s, and I read those periodically to get a feel for the times. I love watching old movies, too, particularly anything with Audrey Hepburn. Roman Holiday is a favorite. I researched clothing endlessly because I decided that clothes were another way to tell the character’s stories: Jean-Rose with her expensive tailored silk dresses and Gigi with her revealing necklines, and Heddy, who needed to borrow more sophisticated bathing suits and stylish shoes to fit in. Reading the archives of local newspapers on Martha’s Vineyard was also a tremendous help.
Q: One of the married men in the book is secretly gay. How did you come up with that storyline and how did you decide how the other characters would react to this news?
A: When I was writing the children, I knew that the little boy, Teddy, would have a love for a baby doll, which would cause his parents distress. I also knew that I wanted Ted, the father, to be an abusive husband – for one, his nasty antics gives you sympathy for Jean-Rose, but his true colors also help Heddy to see that no one on the island is what they seem. Still, it wasn’t until the storyline of the son loving this doll that I thought to connect the two: the father’s misery and his son’s love of a doll. Why was everyone so scared that the little boy loved dolls? It only mattered if it seemed to reflect on the father, if everyone was worried that the child’s love of dolls meant that he would follow in his father’s footsteps.
Q: I went back in forth when trying to predict which man Heddy would end up with. Did you always know, or did you decide as the story developed?
A: I went back and forth, too. I really loved them both. I’ve had friends who read the book tell me: “You would have picked Sullivan!” But then I reply: “But I’m not Heddy.” I think what they’re trying to say is that they were really rooting for Sullivan in the end. Even I found myself rooting for Sullivan. At one point I wrote him so well that I realized that no one in their right mind would understand why Heddy wasn’t picking him. I had to go back through my pages and revise him to show that he wasn’t as obvious of a choice as he seemed. To do that, I had to really think about why Heddy and Sullivan didn’t work. Then I realized it was obvious: Sullivan’s money made him careless and impulsive in his decisions and that scared Heddy, who craved security after her unstable upbringing. Ash is more sure and steady. He’s a comfort, and she can trust him, even under the circumstances they find themselves in.
Q: Those without money seem to think having more will solve their problems, yet those who have plenty, also have problems. Does the level of wealth have an impact on understanding and empathy?
A: I think all of us are always relearning the lesson that money doesn’t buy happiness. We follow Instagram accounts of celebrities, and they seem to have it all. Money gives them a shininess that our lives seem to lack. But the truth is…we all have problems, we all have inner struggles. I often think that a starlet that snaps a photo of herself smiling may have burst into tears right after she posted it. That’s how I see all of my characters: They put on one face for the world, but their inner lives are much more complicated. Heddy begins the summer believing that if she had more money she’d be happier. The truth is that wealth would have helped her pay for school, but it wouldn’t take away the past she’d carried with her until that point. That’s why I love the scene when Gigi talks about reinventing yourself, editing your story, figuring out who you want to be and be it.
Q: I read that you spent summers on the Vineyard; can you tell us about your time there?
A: I’ve been going to the island for two weeks every summer since I was in my twenties. We bike all over the island, hit every beach, paddle board, and shop at the artisan farmer’s markets. I have random memories, too, of my kids eating their first ice cream cone on the island, waving to the Obamas, watching kids jump off the bridge at State Beach. My husband lost his wedding band playing football in Vineyard Sound so a piece of us is there all year long. One of the best parts: eating lobsters on the beach in Menemsha while watching sunset. Martha’s Vineyard is one of my favorite places in the world. To me, it isn’t summer without a pilgrimage to the sparkly island. This summer is strange though. Because after all of our trips to the Vineyard, I can’t go this year, and it’s the year my book comes out. I’ve been saying that when the paperback comes out next summer, I’m going to throw a big book party on the island.
Q: If Summer Darlings were to become a movie, who would you like to play the lead roles?
A: I love this question. Heddy would be Saorise Ronan, who I just adore. Rachel McAdams would be a great Jean-Rose. I love the idea of Scarlett Johannsen as Gigi McCabe: sexy but sharp as nails. Ash has to be Jude Law, and Sullivan is James Franco.
Q: What books have you read lately that you recommend?
A: One of my favorite books of last summer was The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess; it takes place on Cape Cod. I also really loved Jamie Brenner’s Summer Longing, set in Provincetown, and I’m about to start Emma Straub’s All Adults Here.
About the Author:
Brooke Lea Foster is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, People, PARADE, Parents, Psychology Today, Washingtonian, and The Atlantic, among others.