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The Book Buzz

Beach novel offers rare emotional insights

For anyone spending a summer at the beach, a novel about the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 might not seem like the best summertime book. But “A Hundred Summers” by Beatriz Williams will reward the reader with its blend of history, romance, drama, and emotional insights.

Williams grew up in Seattle, but drew inspiration from her interest in the East Coast culture of clubs and summer houses and the intricate social relationships they engender, as well as her longtime fascination with the legendary storm.

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“I’ve always been most struck by the suddenness of its arrival,’’ she said in an interview, “how a sunny and breezy morning turned into a historic hurricane by early afternoon, without the slightest warning.”

According to Williams, “By the time the winds cranked up to a 130 miles an hour and a 15- to 20-foot storm surge rolled in, it was too late to prepare, let alone flee,’’ and 700 people were killed.

This novel, published last year, is set in Seaview, a fictional seaside community in Rhode Island, and tells the story of four friends who first meet at Dartmouth College in 1931.

In the summer of 1938, Lily Dane’s friend Budgie Byrne comes back to Seaview with her new husband, who happens to be Nick Greenwald. Nick had once been the love of Lily’s life, but her family would not accept his Jewish background.

The story alternates between 1931 and 1938, and what unfolds is a powerful story of friendship, betrayal, and family secrets that explode on the eve of one of the most devastating hurricanes to ever hit Rhode Island.

Readers who seek a juicy summer romance will find much to enjoy in this novel. However, the book also excels in its evocation of the social climate of the Depression and pre-WWII era, and the impact of financial reversal and ethnic prejudice.

While Williams captures the cataclysmic impact wrought by the 1938 storm on the shoreline communities in its path, it is the emotional havoc wrought by friends and lovers that captured my interest as a psychologist.

Anyone who has ever experienced a betrayal by a friend, partner, or spouse knows how difficult it is to recover. When it is someone in whom you placed a great deal of trust, it can be especially difficult.

Betrayal can come in many different forms, including the disclosure of secrets, a deliberate deception or misleading expectations, sexual infidelity, seduction and abandonment, or simply acting in a manner that favors one’s own interests at the expense of someone we care about.

Inherent in all of these behaviors is the violation of our fundamental beliefs and expectations regarding the ways we should behave in relationships we claim to value. Betrayal is devastating because it is unexpected, violates perceived relationship rules, and disrupts a relationship in which we have invested.

Yet, clinicians such as Dr. Lissa Rankin identify one particular sort of betrayal that is more insidious and especially corrosive to trust and self-esteem. In a September 2012 article in Psychology Today, Rankin wrote it is the betrayal of “disengagement” — that is, the act of letting go, stopping emotional investment, or failing to fight for a relationship. She states that disengagement “triggers both shame and our worst fears — abandonment, unlovability, and unworthiness.”

Williams does an exceptionally good job of illustrating this distinction in her portrayal of Lily’s reaction to Budgie and Nick. She accepts Budgie’s easy willingness to steal Nick away. Simply put, Lily expects this kind of behavior from her. But in regard to Nick, Lily is deeply wounded because he quit fighting for their relationship and appeared to stop caring. This wound is harder to forgive and recover from.

“I think as human beings we are hard-wired to value loyalty in our most meaningful relationships,’’ Williams said. “Lily finds Nick’s betrayal harder to accept because she knew him to be a good person. She trusted him in a way she never trusted Budgie.”

“A Hundred Summers” is that rare find: a juicy summer treat that also provides a poignant glimpse into the destructive power of betrayal in intimate relationships.

Williams hopes readers will learn that “no one breaks the bond of human loyalty lightly. It is done because there’s a fundamental conflict — internal or external — taking place . . . and we have to forgive each other for sometimes falling short, and losing that conflict.”

Nancy Harris can be reached at dr.nancy23@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @DrNancy_Globe.
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