The art of ‘the beach read’


For au­thor Elin Hilder­brand, the art of the beach novel is very much a mat­ter of lo­ca­tion. Start­ing with where she writes. “I write my books in long­hand, so I ac­tu­ally work on them at the beach,” Hilder­brand, who sets her best­sellers at home on the Mas­sachusetts is­land of Nan­tucket, told The As­so­ci­ated Press dur­ing a re­cent tele­phone in­ter­view.

“And all those el­e­ments that make for an au­then­tic sum­mer ex­pe­ri­ence, the fetishes that go with sum­mer­time — love of that spe­cial sum­mer place and the dis­tinc­tion be­tween sum­mer and the rest of the year — th­ese are what I try to de­pict in my nov­els.”

The “beach read” is short­hand for dis­pos­able page-turners, but Hilder­brand and oth­ers who write them have long-held rules and stan­dards: strong char­ac­ters and nar­ra­tives, and set­tings that are com­pelling and ac­cu­rate.

Mary Alice Mon­roe, whose “Beach House for Rent” came out in June, sets her work along the South Carolina coast and calls it a “per­sonal pet peeve” when she reads a beach story and finds mis­takes in the de­scrip­tion of the land­scape.

Mon­roe be­lieves the “beach read” can be more than an es­cape. She likes to com­bine stories of fam­ily, friend­ship or ro­mance with her ad­vo­cacy for en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism. “Beach House for Rent” tells of two women un­ex­pect­edly shar­ing a sum­mer home and the plight of shore­birds that helps unite them.

“What en­cour­ages me to keep work­ing is that I know I am mak­ing a dif­fer­ence through my books,” Mon­roe says. “My method when I’m writ­ing a book is to do re­search and be­come part of the story I tell. When my read­ers ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing like a wounded pel­i­can on the beach, or when they see a bird fly off, they ex­pe­ri­ence it, too, be­cause it’s au­then­tic to my life.”

Hilder­brand’s nov­els in­clude “Beau­ti­ful Day,” “Here’s To Us” and “The Match­maker.” Her next book, sched­uled for June, is called “The Iden­ti­cals” and uses the is­lands of Nan­tucket and Martha’s Vine­yard for a fam­ily drama about iden­ti­cal twins who are per­haps more alike than they want to ac­knowl­edge.

Not many writ­ers, Hilder­brand in­cluded, grow­ing up dream­ing of pub­lish­ing “beach reads.” She at­tended the pres­ti­gious writ­ing school at The Univer­sity of Iowa and found her­self among au­thors more likely to write the Great Amer­i­can Novel than the Great Amer­i­can Beach Novel.

“So here I am, in the mid­dle of the coun­try with all th­ese hy­per in­tel­lec­tu­als, and I’m so mis­er­able,” Hilder­brand says. “And I de­cided, to make my­self feel bet­ter, that I’m go­ing to write a novel set in Nan­tucket. So I started writ­ing this book called ‘The Beach Club’ based on a lo­cal ho­tel. It wasn’t my in­ten­tion write a beach novel, per se, but I just went there.

“I imag­ine they thought I was re­ally silly,” she says of her fel­low Iowa stu­dents. “I’m laugh­ing all the way to the bank.”

“The Iden­ti­cals,” by Elin Hilder­brand

“Beach House for Rent,” by Mary Alice Mon­roe

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