The High Tide Club
by Mary Kay Andrews
St. Martin's Press, 2018
Grudgingly, haltingly, the summer is inching closer in America; stubborn cold and sleet cling to most of the country, and the glory of June is still a yawning month away (and given how off-the-chart savage last summer was, the longing itself is probably ill-advised, but even so), but the days are longer and marginally warmer, and it no longer feels completely delusional to dream about French fries at Sully's or reading under a tree in the Arboretum – or, if you're blessed with skin that doesn't instantly erupt in purple suppurating burns at the least touch of sunlight, taking a book to the beach.
For years now, that particular activity – taking a book to the beach – has had a very close human synonym: Mary Kay Andrews, whose publisher is for once not indulging in hyperbole to refer to as the Queen of Beach Reads. Andrews, the bestselling author of books with titles like Beach Town, The Weekenders, and Summer Rental, has a new book, and it's her best one by far: The High Tide Club, which arrives alongside the month of May and comes very knowingly adorned with a cover (designed by Michael Storrings) that checks all the boxes: white sand, a generous canvas beach-bag, sunglasses, dune grass in the middle distance, and the blue sea on the horizon (there's also a big red crab, who auditioned to look cute and hasn't yet been told about the evening's menu). At a glance, the cover promises most of the things Andrews is an old hand at delivering: inviting dialogue, beautiful settings, low-stakes drama, and happy endings.
It's no bratty spoiler to assure readers that The High Tide Club has all of these things. The real revelation here is that it has considerably more.
The story is set in motion by terminally ill and resplendently eccentric Georgian millionaire Josephine Bettendorf Quinlan, reclusive owner of Talisa Island, a 20,000-acre barrier island and mistress of the slightly dilapidated “astonishing pink wedding cake of a mansion” there called Shellhaven. Josephine is 99 years old, and a long time ago, she and her girlhood friends Ruth, Millie, and Varina thought of themselves as a kind of informal social club they nicknamed the High Tide Club, and now, in 2018, with her own mortality staring her in the face, Josephine has an intricate (and ever so slightly enigmatic) plan to contact the surviving members of the Club and their descendants and try to make some kind of amends.
In order to set all this in motion, Josephine needs an emissary, and the one she chooses is Millie's granddaughter Brooke, a young attorney who's summoned to Shellhaven and given the task of finding all the remnants of the High Tide Club she can. Brooke, a single mother with a dry sense of humor, is a wonderful creation on Andrews' part, a pitch-perfect reader stand-in who, in true Andrews form, is more closely connected to the High Tide Club's frolics in the 1930s and '40s than she imagines when she reluctantly takes Josephine's commission.
The story that unfolds from this hooky beginning is handled with the smooth assurance of a veteran storyteller. Andrews shuttles her narration back and forth in time, steadily increasing the tension as the mysteries of one era reinforce and amplify the mysteries of the other. This active play of time in the narrative steadily introduces a deeper and more bittersweet element into The High Tide Club than this author has ever risked in one of her sunny summer books. It's an element captured in Talisa Island itself and Josephine's desire that it be preserved long after her death. When Brooke is explaining this to the survivors of the Club, there's a note of wistfulness clinging to the wonder:
It's an amazing place. Mostly wild. There's a state park on the north end of the island, but otherwise, Shellhaven, the home Josephine's father built, and a small community called Oyster Bluff are the only houses on the island. The scenery is spectacular – and the beach, well, when you see it, I think you'll begin to understand Josephine's determination to keep things untouched. You really have to see the island before you can begin to appreciate its beauty.
The High Tide Club works in a murder, an old and long-simmering savage crime, high-stakes personal revelations deployed late in the story to keep things bubbling along, a touch of legal drama, and even some romance rendered with mercifully understated realism. This is a mixture that will be familiar to Mary Kay Andrews readers, and the joy of this author is that each of her books presents an unabashed invitation to become one of those readers. And all such readers can hope that the book's appearance itself will function as an invitation to hurry summer along just a bit.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com