It should come as no surprise that I hadn’t read an Elin Hilderbrand novel until I picked up Summer of ’69. And as soon as I started following what people were saying about it, I realized that, similar to when I read Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything a few weeks ago, the style was not typical of Hilderbrand’s summer beach read. It was apparently her first try at historical fiction, too. (Maybe that’s how I’m going to get into all of the “big” authors these days?) Nevertheless, the plot intrigued me, and although I don’t know much about the late ’60s (especially in the US), I was looking forward to reading one of the most anticipated reads of the summer.
Welcome to the most tumultuous summer of the twentieth century! It’s 1969, and for the Levin family, the times they are a-changing. Every year the children have looked forward to spending the summer at their grandmother’s historic home in downtown Nantucket: but this year Blair, the oldest sister, is marooned in Boston, pregnant with twins and unable to travel. Middle sister Kirby, a college student, is caught up in the thrilling vortex of civil rights protests, a passion which takes her to Martha’s Vineyard with her best friend. Only son Tiger is an infantry soldier, recently deployed to Vietnam. Thirteen-year-old Jessie suddenly feels like an only child, marooned in the house with her out-of-touch grandmother who is hiding some secrets of her own. As the summer heats up, Teddy Kennedy sinks a car in Chappaquiddick, a man flies to the moon, and Jessie experiences some sinking and flying herself, as she grows into her own body and mind.
In her first “historical novel,” rich with the details of an era that shaped both a country and an island thirty miles out to sea, Elin Hilderbrand once again proves her title as queen of the summer novel.
This book took me a little while to get into. In fact, I was supposed to have it read weeks ago, but I kept pushing it back and finishing other things first because I just couldn’t stay engaged with this one. That being said, after all of the many characters’ backgrounds were explained and as soon as we actually got into the story, I plowed through and finished the last two thirds in a day. And I generally enjoyed it.
There were a few characters that I didn’t care for at all: Kate, for example, really was a sad sack, and her eldest daughter, Blair, didn’t have that interesting of a story—even when the “secret” came to a close. But I really loved Jessie and Kirby. I don’t know why, because I’m not an only child nor am I the youngest child, but I related to Jessie on a deeper level. I don’t know if it’s because she was the do-gooder who just wanted to make everyone happy (*cough* not that I relate to that at all *cough*) or just because I remember being a 13-year-old girl, but I wanted to explore her world further and wish I got a more fulfilling conclusion to her story. I thought Kirby’s story was more thought out and complete, and I think I enjoyed that she was separate from the rest of the family for a big portion of the plot.
I loved that every book title was the name of a song that was popular around the time the novel takes place. That was a great touch that really put me in the story, because I would kind of hum the songs that I knew in my head while I was reading. This is another book (like Roomies by Christina Lauren) that could have benefitted from a playlist playing alongside it.
Now, from a historical standpoint, I don’t know much about the American political climate in the late ’60s and I don’t really know who Teddy Kennedy was—I’m Canadian, after all—but I felt the part about him was just thrown in. I barely realized what had happened until it was talked about way after the fact, later in the story. Adding the senator’s story just added extra characters to an already over-casted story, and I don’t think it brought anything to the table.
All in all, I enjoyed the book and am looking forward to giving something a little more typical of Hilderbrand’s a try. I was expecting a little more of a chick lit-y beach read than I was given, but it was a good surprise nonetheless.
“And maybe, just maybe, this summer will end up being one that people write songs about.” —Elin Hilderbrand, Summer of ’69
Thank you to Will Langenberg on Unsplash for the featured photo of the retro-looking beach.