BEACH WEEK by Susan Coll

Book Quote:

“It made her think about that Radiohead song ‘Fake Plastic Trees,’ with its fake Chinese rubber plant in plastic earth in a town full of other rubber plants. It made her think about her parents, too. How was it that they just kept at it day after day, living a sort of plastic life in a plastic house in a plastic suburb?”

Book Review:

Review by Mike Fredette (JUN 27, 2010)

Those who enjoyed Susan Coll’s last novel will be pleased to know that she has successfully recycled a different aspect of the same material in her newest, bitingly witty satire, Beach Week. While Acceptance took aim at the upper middle class suburban hysteria surrounding the college application process, Beach Week is much edgier, a novel whose focus is the post-graduation tradition of high school seniors in the wealthy DC suburbs. During the summer before college, mobs of college-bound spoiled eighteen-year-olds rent, with the sanction and cosignatures of parents, beach houses along the Delaware shore where they engage in a week of bad decisions and biblical-like immorality.

Coll’s story focuses mostly on the Adler family, recent transplants from the Midwest whose transition to the east coast has been less than smooth. Besides the financial troubles still haunting them back in Nebraska, Charles and Leah are suffering from marital boredom. Since moving to the DC suburb of Verona, Jordan, their daughter, has suffered a massive head injury on the soccer field, turning Leah into an overprotective, neurotic mother. At the center of this domestic turmoil is beach week, which Leah surprisingly encourages Jordan to attend since she is actually more worried about her apathy towards Verona than her safety. Not surprisingly, the novel ends with teenage drug use, a burning beach house, a number of police officers, and some runaway lobsters (you’ll have to read it to find out). Along the way, however, Coll introduces us to an array of quirky characters. She takes what could easily be the book version of American Pie and infuses it with a profoundly funny exploration of the angst and turmoil at the heart of America’s suburban experience.

What strikes the reader first about Coll’s new novel is the cover art. It suggests, without even having to read the first page, that this book is not really about the kids. A person’s foot hangs threateningly posed overhead a pristinely constructed sand castle on the beach. In the distant background, waves crash that, once the tide comes in, will eventually wash the castle away. For those who already know the basic premise of this story, it is easy to dismiss this picture as just a clever way of foreshadowing a week-long high school beach party turning into something reckless and self-destructive. However, the reader who gazes long enough will see that the sand castle represents not just the beach houses where these youth reside during beach week. It also suggests a domestic, familial space whose very existence is threatened by an onslaught of destructive, external forces. As Leah thinks to herself, the onslaught might just be one overlong episode with a whole lot of chapters, not unlike when you moved across the country and lost your center somehow, and then your husband’s job hit a wall, and your daughter, already unhappy about the move, suffered a concussion and became moody and secretive, and then money problems worsened and your marriage began to fray, and your mother-in-law’s dementia intensified, and then your husband and daughter wound up in prison.

Leah is arguably one of the best characters, illustrating that middle age women often suffer from the same existential anxiety as men. Much to the dismay of her also angst-ridden husband, she offers to host the initial parent meeting concerning Beach Week at her home because “she wanted to go to Beach Week herself.” She would “dare say that in some private corner of her mind she longed for the bad stuff that Beach Week was known for, too.” Add to this feelings inadequacy in the face of peers who are all aggressive parents, high-powered lawyers, and ambitious Washington types, and you have all the fixings for a bona fide midlife crisis. She and Charles “were cultured, educated people. They listened to NPR and saw foreign films,…so why was it she felt she didn’t belong in this town?” She realizes these feelings are “pathetically cliché,” but as she approaches a soon-to-be empty house with just Charles, she cannot help but fantasize about the risky youth she never had or worry that she does not meet the social criteria of her new environment.

The book’s next best character has to be Noah, the man whose dilapidated house the girls end up renting during Beach Week. Recently divorced from his wife Clara, this MIT graduate now sells salt water taffy on the boardwalk of Chelsea Beach. Unfortunately for him, the rest of the world thinks he’s a perverted peeping tom because of a best-selling book his ex-wife published soon after their divorce. As he tries to explain, however, the reason he fell from the tree in his yard and injured his head was not because he was leering at the neighbor but because “he was trying to prevent a murder and write up a report.” Eventually, the reader discovers that Noah is innocent enough, probably suffering from some type of congenital brain defect that skews his interpretation of the world and its events. Predictably, he ends up being the one character to whom Jordan can relate, the novel’s only other character with a severe head injury. A truly unique character, Noah’s chapters are hysterical. How can the reader not laugh out loud at a character who, when watching his house burn with lobsters running across his yard, thinks “of that graphing program on the computer at work and [tries] to visualize some kind of theory of lobster outcomes?”

Coll possesses the perfect literary voice for satire, with spot-on, well-timed wit. She moves effortlessly between the interiorities of men and women, adults and adolescents, exposing all their quirky foibles while making all her main characters likeable and endearing. Whereas Acceptance truly focused on the college application process and the neuroses of high school seniors, Beach Week is a more imaginative effort in terms of characters and subplots. The beach week activity itself is secondary, more a vehicle to explore the regrets, resentments, and dissatisfactions of middle-aged suburban Americans in a very humorous way. Adult readers will definitely appreciate Beach Week far more than Acceptance because, let’s face it, adults don’t really care anymore about getting into college, acing the SATs, or guzzling beer and having risky sex at a week-long, unchaperoned high school blowout. Or if they’re like Leah, maybe they still do.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 7 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (May 25, 2010)
REVIEWER: Mike Frechette
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt

Perfect Life by Jessica Shattuck

and more humor:

Beginner’s Greek by James Collins


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June 27, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Humorous, Satire, Washington, D.C.

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