It’s 1950 in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, towards the end of summer, a time when the holiday lets end and the summer only residents return home. Two of the latter are Jo and Edward Hopper, he the Hopper whose paintings would eventually sell for up to $92 million but also an artist whose paintings of meditative (or possibly depressive) solitude have been described as the painter of the Coronavirus era.
In that period Hopper was struggling to paint, to find the combination of buildings, people and shadows that would inspire him. His health was not great. Jo – his wife – had been an artist and in the novel she bubbles over with anger that her talent was never recognised. Edward tries to be kind, but makes it clear that she had little to offer. Their marriage reads like a nightmare, he, depressed, she, well…”… in any given group she will sooner or later find an enemy – usually another female… she has always irked people, rubbed them up the wrong way, frequently insulted them or swiped back at an insult where none had been intended.”. Oh dear. This was marriage as car crash, literally too as Edward tries to stop her driving on public safety grounds which led, like virtually any spoken word, to periods of brooding silence or repetitive anger and outrage.
Into their barren lives come two ten year old boys, neighbours along the beach. One, Michael, is a wartime orphan taken out of Germany, a boy who knows little of his parents or past other than horror. The second is Richie, himself a lost boy, whose father was killed in the war and who resents his mother starting to take up with another man. The boys are meant to get on with each other, perhaps to help each other. They don’t.
But to the suprise of the childless Hoppers, they like the boys and the boys like them, with Michael becoming a near daily visitor to Jo. For once, everyone has a friend. Michael becomes less scared and in Edward Richie finds someone he can talk to (and, boy, he talks) who will actually listen. Even the awful Jo, usually so divorced from any feelings other than resentment, changes when looking at Michael – “… the feeling comes on her again, under her breastbone, between her ribs. A feeling that is one second of joy, two seconds of grief. And she knows then: what has been removed is loneliness and what has been added is love.” Can such a feeling sustain?
The novel comes to a head during and after a huge garden party organised by Richie’s mother. The problems of each of the main characters hang over us as the author views the party from different perspectives, as she does throughout. The recent war also hangs over the party – many of those attending also lost family or were wounded or were Vets, and the word Korea is on people’s mind. And we know that the long summer is ending, which, for Katherine, Richie’s sister, brings dread as this underplayed but interesting character knows she has not got long to live.
For everyone, the party will soon be over.