Elin Hilderbrand was born a week before both the Apollo 11 moon landing and Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s automobile accident at Chappaquiddick, and a month before Woodstock. Selective service notices were in the mail, rebellion was in the air. It was the summer of 1969, a war was on, and the combat wasn’t only in Vietnam. It also was in the streets, around the dinner table, in the bedroom. The conventions, the assumptions, the folkways, of American life were under siege everywhere. It was a brutal time, and a beautiful time.
And so Hilderbrand’s novel carrying the evocative title “Summer of ‘69” has a formidable burden: understand how the principal power structures of American life — in the Congress, in the family, in the streets — were tottering, hang a narrative to it, and infuse it with drama. All that plus one thing more: be sure of the details — even the simplest ones — so that the Baby Boomers drawn to the book’s title (the way members of the Greatest Generation were drawn to a 1971 film that bore the title “Summer of ‘42”) don’t squawk that, to get that summer right, you had to be there.
Hilderbrand was there, of course, but only barely. On the surface, the novelist who was a newborn when the momentous events of that summer unfolded has a hopeless task: The center of the book-buying public has vivid memories of the time. Then again, Walter Scott wasn’t in 12th century England, but seven centuries later managed to write “Ivanhoe,” a creditable (if not entirely credible) classic – which I was forced to read at Shaw Junior High School in Swampscott in the very year of Hilderbrand’s novel.
It turns out that despite her lack of lived experience in the tensions and tumult of ‘69, Hilderbrand is possessed of remarkable perspective on the time, the result of a good deal of research about that summer and a good ear in her various interviews about that summer. For the most part she gets the period right.
It helps, of course, that the chapter titles include “Born to Be Wild” and “More Today than Yesterday,” which some of us think of as classical music. (It surely was longhair music.) In her book, as in that summer, people gave each other records. often played on a Magnavox, which often sat next to a television with rabbit ears. It was an era of hi-fi, not wi-fi. There was still a Woolworths in Coolidge Corner. (Jack & Marion’s was there, too, and I wish Hilderbrand had dropped a scene in there.) People listened to transistor radios on the beach.
This is a Nantucket book, the way “Summer of ‘42” was a Nantucket book, but it also is a Boston book. The son way off in Vietnam misses the butter brickle from Brigham’s, one element of Hub authenticity. Here’s another: Hilderbrand puts the hyphen in Durgin-Park, and no editor in New York excised it. The sensibility in this volume is one part the ladies who lunch, one part the children who “all believed that only working class boys went to war, not star receivers from Brookline High School.”
For a Boston-area audience the plot is almost incidental, though in some ways it is incendiary.
There’s a lot to keep straight here. Blair was dating Joey but married his brother Angus, whom Blair thinks is having an affair with Trixie, who turns out not to be a prostitute but instead is a psychiatrist. But when Blair, big with children (she’s having two), is caught by her husband making out with his brother, all hell breaks loose, and the marriage looks as if it is breaking up. Got that? That’s before we learn that Bitsy Dunscombe, aristocratic to the core, is having an affair with Arturo, whoever he is (a waiter, apparently). Hard-bitten patrician grandmaw Exalta is having an affair with the caretaker, who apparently has for a long time taken care to be sure they aren’t discovered.
By page six we know that Kate, another major character, has done a “terrible thing.” We are reminded of that again on page 219. But wait — waiting is what the reader is doing, mostly — the tease comes up again 63 pages later. The answer comes on page 353. I won’t tell you. If I had to wait that long, you should, too.
Of course Ted Kennedy makes an appearance here, playing host to a party for the Boiler Room Girls of the doomed presidential campaign of his slain brother Bobby. No one from these environs born before 1962 needs to be reminded what happened next, though readers born after that year might profit from a little more explanation from Hilderbrand.
Overall this novel is an entertaining bagatelle, told by a proficient storyteller in an engaging way. There won’t be a single transistor radio this summer on Singing Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea, nor on Madaket Beach in Nantucket. But there almost certainly will be multiple copies of ‘’Summer of ‘69.’’ It’s this year’s beach-reading cure for — forgive me for introducing a phrase from a song from 1958, a year nowhere near as interesting or consequential as 1969 — the summertime blues.
By Elin Hilderbrand
Little, Brown & Company, 432 pp. $28
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.