A reader recently asked why my latest novels are set in coastal towns and I said, “I guess I wanted to take the Jews to the beach.” I was half joking, but there is some truth to the sentiment. I love beach books — stories about family and love set in beautiful little towns by the ocean. And while I read them voraciously, the truth is, there is very little in the beach town experience depicted in these books that I recognize. It’s not just that there are few, if any, Jews in the stories. It’s more that the novels often center around a charming Cape Cod or Outer Banks cottage that has been in the family for generations, and that’s alien to me.
Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, I spent my summers at the Jersey Shore. My grandparents did not have a beach cottage, they had a condo on the boardwalk. It was the same for my friends and their grandparents. From the terraces, we had views of the beach and of the new casinos sprouting up in Atlantic City. As teenagers, we would meet in the mornings at the beach, then have lunch at one of the cheesesteak and “hoagie” places a few blocks from the water. At night, while our parents hit the casinos, we congregated in the lobby of one of the buildings until a manager shooed us upstairs to our own apartments. It was idyllic to us, but far from the classic backdrop of the books I grew to love.
In my new novel, The Forever Summer, I chose Provincetown, Massachusetts as the setting because it’s beautiful, remote, and unconventional in every way. I realize now I wasn’t ready to write about the Jersey Shore, but I did feel compelled to write about a place that veered at least slightly from the more typical settings in beach novels. The Forever Summer is the story of two young women — one Jewish, one not — who discover they are half sisters and travel to Provincetown to meet the grandmother they never knew they shared. The characters in this story not only find new family, they inherit a true sense of belonging in their grandmother’s quirky beach town.
For my next book, The Husband Hour (coming spring 2018), I returned to Longport, New Jersey. While the stretch of towns from Ventnor to Longport have gone through changes since my summers in the 1980s, I found the character of the shore very much intact. The boardwalk, the cheesesteaks places, the ice cream parlors, the eclectic landmarks like Lucy the Elephant, are still there exactly as I remembered them though my grandparents and their condo are long gone. In The Husband Hour, the Jersey Shore is both the family retreat and the heroine’s escape from the problems of her adult life. For her, as for me, the beach does not represent a generations-old family legacy. Instead, it offers the memory of a simpler moment in time.
Some readers have asked me if I will set future books in the same town, the way some authors return to places like Nantucket or Hilton Head. My answer is no. While I don’t write “Jewish” books, I can’t help but tell stories through a Jewish lens. Maybe it’s because I come from a wandering people, but I prefer to explore a different town in each of my novels. Maybe, some day, one of them will feel like home. But for now, I’m just happy for a view of the ocean.