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Tragedy and teenage secrets set in Nantucket community

When it comes to great summer beach reads, many women turn to the guilty pleasure of Elin Hilderbrand’s escapist fare.

Emily Burgess of Hingham, a mother of two college-age daughters and a speech pathologist, is drawn to Hilderbrand’s novels every summer because she enjoys their frequent combination of illicit romance and life on Nantucket.

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“While I visited Nantucket only once many summers ago, it has always stayed with me,’’ Burgess said. “It seemed like paradise to me with its beautiful beaches, fresh seafood, gentle breezes, and charming town. Hilderbrand’s novels awaken the senses and make this summer haven come to life for me all over again.”

While Hilderbrand’s most recent novel, “Summerland,” is set on Nantucket, that’s where the similarity to her other works ends, said Burgess.

This novel, she said, is a tragedy “more reminiscent of the topical, intense focus of Jodi Picoult’s books. It is certainly not a light beach read, but well worth the time.”

In “Summerland,” four teenagers are involved in a fatal car accident on the eve of Nantucket High School’s graduation. One teen, Penny Alistair, is killed; her twin brother, Hobby, lies in a coma; and their two best friends are grief-stricken and changed forever.

Everyone in the community is touched by this tragedy that has destroyed the lives of some of their best and brightest, leaving more than a few people wondering why it happened, and others, including the surviving teens, feeling horribly responsible. As summer unfolds and questions linger, secrets are revealed about both the teen survivors and their parents.

According to Burgess, the book touches on some of the ways that any teenager, regardless of talent and intellect, can self-destruct, such as alcohol abuse, unprotected sex, reckless driving, bullying, and undiagnosed depression.

“What struck me about this story is that as parents, we can live in a world of denial when it comes to our children, perhaps even more so if they are academically successful, popular, or athletes,’’ she said. “But all of them have an interior life, secrets even, that they may not readily share, and this can have devastating consequences.”

Further, Burgess adds: “There is no getting away from the fact that this is a genuinely sad story, but it also raises an important question about adult culpability. We must question whether our compulsive need to protect our children from life’s realities, life’s pain, leaves them more vulnerable and less able to cope when circumstances become difficult.”

In terms of writing style, Burgess said Hilderbrand seamlessly weaves together the days before and after the accident, through the eyes of Nantucket residents. But in an unusual deviation from earlier work, Hilderbrand gives the small town community its own character and voice, in separate chapters of commentary.

That conveys two valuable points, Burgess said.

“First, as in small towns everywhere, people think they know everything about everyone — but do they really?

“Even more importantly, it highlights the fact that no community is immune from suffering despite the wealth, glamour, and beauty of its locale.”

The true tragedy of the story is not the car accident, she said, but “parental failure to recognize and distinguish typical adolescent angst from genuine teenage despair.”

From my perspective as a psychologist, I believe Burgess accurately outlined the difficulty of identifying when a teenager’s sometimes erratic mood and behavior are part of the normal developmental phase, or when is it a sign of more serious depression.

At some point in adolescence, teens may involve themselves in risk-taking behavior as a way of testing themselves. They may drink, put themself at risk for a sexually transmitted disease, or drive at high speeds. In and of itself, however, any single behavior is not necessarily a cause for alarm.

A comprehensive look at the teenager’s functioning in three spheres — friends, school, and family — is necessary to recognize when these behaviors may be problematic. When a teen is floundering in two or three spheres, and engaged in risky behavior, this sends a more serious signal. There is indeed a fine line between teen bravado and teen depression.

According to Burgess: “If you are looking for a summer read that has depth and is a compelling read about secrets kept, hearts broken, and promises betrayed, then this is a good choice.

“But more than anything, ‘Summerland’ makes a valuable statement about the potential healing power of communication and honesty, in both family and community.”

Nancy Harris can be reached at dr_nancy23@gmail. Follow her on Twitter @DrNancy_Globe.
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