NEW YORK – Mary Parker is a nurse from St. Louis so caught up in the beach novels of Elin Hilderbrand that she makes an annual trip to Nantucket, the Massachusetts island community where Hilderbrand sets her stories.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Parker isn't sure she'll make it to Nantucket this year or even find herself close to a beach. But she will continue to make the journey in her mind, through books by Hilderbrand and others.
“We don't have anything that compares to a place like Nantucket where I'm from," Parker says. “So writers like Elin Hilderbrand are all we have now if those are the kinds of places you dream of being. You just need that escape."
The coronavirus has already shut down most of the country's bookstores, led to the cancellation of the industry's annual national convention, BookExpo, and driven publishers to postpone many releases to the fall or next year. It now challenges another publishing and cultural tradition — beach reads. While beach reads can include any kind of light fiction, many of these romances, thrillers and family dramas are actually set on beaches and summer resorts from Nantucket to the South Carolina coast to Florida.
Government officials in New York and California already have warned that beaches are likely to be closed this summer and travel restricted. Such summer literary institutions as the book festival in Nantucket will be held online instead. And promotional tours for books will likely remain limited to virtual discussions.
Authors and booksellers contend, and hope, that you don't need a beach to read a beach book. Hilderbrand remembers a painful summer growing up when her father had died and the family's traditional summer outing was called off. Instead, she worked at a factory making Halloween costumes.
“What I could have used that summer was a book to replace my summer beach vacation, something that would have let me escape," says Hildebrand, whose bestsellers include “The Summer of '69” and “The Perfect Couple.”
Fellow author Mary Alice Monroe says readers tell her something similar about this summer.
“They're hoping I can take them to a place they can't get to themselves,” says Monroe, whose books include “The Summer Guests” and “Beach House for Rent.”
Beach reads are as carefully timed as Christmas books, so new novels by Hilderbrand, Monroe, Nancy Thayer and others remain scheduled for May and June. Hildebrand's “28 Summers,” inspired in part by the film “Same Time, Next Year,” traces a long-term affair that began in Nantucket in 1993. Monroe's “On Ocean Boulevard” continues her “Beach House” series set in South Carolina.
In Barbara Delinsky's “A Week at the Shore,” a New Yorker confronts family issues during a visit to the Rhode Island beach house where she spent summers as a child. Nancy Thayer's “Girls of Summer,” like Hilderbrand's new book, is set in Nantucket, while Mary Kay Andrews' “Hello, Summer” finds a journalist returning to her home in Silver Bay, Florida, where her family runs local newspapers.
“This year, maybe the beach read will be on somebody's back porch or hammock or in the corner of an apartment of wherever they're sheltering at home,” Andrews says. “What I hope to do is take them to the beach in their imagination.”
Authors already are looking to the summer of 2021 and considering whether their next books will mention the pandemic. Monroe says she is working on a story that will have her characters living through “this virus saga,” and will brink back the Rutledge family of her “Beach House” series in the hope that readers “will connect with them.” Hilderbrand worked in a reference to the virus shortly before completing “28 Summers,” and says that while it won't be a major plot point in her upcoming work, she might find it “unavoidable to mention.”
Other writers expect to avoid it, at least in the short term. Delinsky says she might refer to it in a book in a few years, when there's a better sense of perspective. Brooke Lea Foster has no need to include it. Her upcoming novel, “Summer Darlings,” takes place on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, in the 1960s. She's currently writing a story set in the Hamptons in the 1950s.
“I'm sure the books that come out of this moment will be incredible, but I like to go back and escape in time," Foster said.