Time for the Beach: Two New Novels

By James Zug

Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg
Berkeley, CA: She Writes Press, 2017

A family struggling to overcome devastating secrets while in a beautiful place is the core of Jeanne Blasberg’s debut novel.

Blasberg is most well-known to this magazine’s readers as a squash leader. While at Smith, she picked up the game and played on the varsity team her senior year. After college she continued to play in Cincinnati and then Boston. She began volunteering, first joining the Massachusetts Squash board and after becoming its president, she was asked to serve on the board of US Squash. She became treasurer, and from 2006 to 2009 she was board chair of US Squash—the first woman to lead the Association since it was founded in 1904.

Throughout all that, Blasberg was also writing. (She touchingly thanks her children in her acknowledgments “who, when filling out school forms that asked for their mother’s occupation, wrote ‘author.’”)

Squash novelists Louisa Hall and Ivy Pochoda have praised Eden—as did bestselling author Anita Shreve—and for good reason. It is a big-hearted, if sometimes harrowing journey through one family’s twentieth century. The story shifts in alternating chapters from the 1920s and 30s when Becca Meister is a child and young adult to the summer of 2000 when Meister, now as the family matriarch, invites the clan back to finally reckon with the past and the future.

Eden is a beach read, in the best sense of the word. The story revolves around Eden, the name of a fictional Rhode Island summer house. Eden, a porch-encrusted, seven-bedroom home right on the water, lulls the family, Blasberg writes, “into a sense of immunity to the world’s chaos” but at the same time it is the repository for decades of hostility, jealousy and loss.

Sometimes this is physical, as during the infamous hurricane of 1938 that nearly destroyed the house. But more often it is less obvious. Shifts of power can be detected in Eden bedroom assignments. Arguments over cocktails and deviled eggs can lead to virtual estrangements. There is no actual squash in the novel, although Dan, Becca’s husband, earns a dollop of credibility with Becca’s father for having captained the squash team at Yale.

The crux of the story is that three generations of women have had unwanted pregnancies. Becca’s has always been a secret and the daughter that she bore and gave up for adoption comes to meet her birth family during the climatic weekend in 2000. Although the salt-air on the sleeping porch and the rust stain around the drain in the old sink are vivid images, the most powerful scenes in Eden are perhaps not in Rhode Island at all but in Kansas City. Becca secretly goes there in 1945 to wait out her pregnancy at a home for unwed mothers-to-be. It was a vivid counterpoint to similarly painful scenes earlier in the novel when Becca’s post-partum depressed mother, against her will, is stranded at a sanatorium.

Literary farewells to a family summer place are not uncommon. Eden often reminded me of The Past, English novelist Tessa Hadley’s remarkable 2016 novel set at a family home in the Somerset countryside; and The Big House, George Howe Colt’s 2003 popular memoir about a final summer at his family’s vacation home on Cape Cod. Both books, like Eden, feature characters who nostalgically yearn for a past that never was, for the various versions of themselves no longer approachable.

Trophy Son
Douglas Brunt
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017

This is a novel you are going to hear about.

For one, Brunt’s previous two novels—Ghosts of Manhattan (2012) used the backdrop of the 2008 financial collapse to tell cautionary tale of a bond trader at Bear Stearns and was a New York Times bestseller; The Means (2014) was a behind-the-scenes look at national politics—both got a lot of attention. For another, Brunt is married to Megyn Kelly, formerly of Fox News, now of NBC News.

Brunt now turns his eye from Wall Street and Washington to another bizarre, engrossing subculture of ego and money and power and sex: tennis. He follows the career of Anton Stratis from junior prodigy in Philadelphia to world No. 1 and Grand Slam champion.

Trophy Son might be a sobering guide for any of the obsessed, over-involved, Zamboni parents in the junior squash community: here is what happens to your kid. Brunt lightly glides over the actual tennis—he devotes all of three lines of one paragraph to Stratis winning his one major, the Australian Open. Instead he delves deeply into Stratis’ relationships, particularly with his passive mother, his ever-retreating brother and his intensely competitive father.

It is hard reading of Stratis’ childhood and not think of Andre Agassi’s 2009 memoir Open. It is almost eerie: the similarly abusive father, the hours of ball-machine fed balls on a backyard court, the money hustling, the performance-enhancing drugs. Somewhat like Agassi, Stratis, from an early age, has no life outside tennis (he drops out of high school) and struggles, mightily at times, to create a mature, coherent personality.

Brunt oversteps just once: Stratis, now estranged from his father, is playing in the semis at Wimbledon when a disruptive fan shouts commentary after every point. It just isn’t believable that it takes until late in the second set, after security guards wrestle the fan out of Centre Court and his fake-beard disguise falls off, that, hello, it’s his father. Anyone who has been harangued and bullied for years would know that voice right away. “Some parents feel their position of unconditional love permits unfettered abuse,” Brunt writes.

Stratis, riddled with injuries and deeply unhappy, retires before he turns thirty. He ends up with the palliatives of the girl of his dreams, a lot of trophies and a lot of money, but still the bitter realization that he has no interior life.