How do you write about a mild-mannered summer fling between an older, established man and his very young female assistant without sounding trite? Karen Dukess, in “The Last Book Party,” creates her fresh take on this dynamic through lovely, concise descriptions of an ephemeral relationship carried out in the salt-laden breezes of Cape Cod.
Bicycling, tennis, backgammon and swimming are the daily scenes; martinis, import beer and fresh seafood are the main props. All the elements of this even-handed, short novel seem light-hearted and genteel, until the closing pages explode into an unmitigated disaster at a drunken August end-of-season bash.
In June 1987, Eve Rosen, publications assistant at a prominent New York City literary house, meets distinguished columnist Henry Grey.
Henry is hosting an early summer gathering of the wealthy, white elite of Cape Cod —writers, editors, poets, and artists.
Dukess gets the voice just right of a giddy, innocent wannabe who is determined to appear calm, cool and unimpressed. While Eve’s parents are wealthy enough to annually summer on the Cape, they are Jewish business class who do not socialize with the stellar crowd to which Eve aspires. Mild observations of anti-Semitism tint the narrative, but never blossom into a main theme.
Instead, Dukess weaves ethnic striving, frustrated desire, ambivalent talent and benign sibling rivalry into a suitable background for a delicate coming-of-age story.
As a courtesy to Henry’s editor, Eve is invited to the season’s opening party. She knows she is an innocuous accessory, a young, fresh face who, from the very first pages, wants more — especially to always seem “effortlessly funny and smart.”
She’s fairly successful at assuming this persona, enough so that Henry offers her a summer temp job on the Cape. With her boss’ blessing, she jumps at the chance to leave her dead-end city job. Her parents also like this opportunity. It brings Eve home for the summer, which fits in with their expectations that she secure a wealthy husband.
So, what lifts this engaging read above the typical summertime beach romance? Elevation comes from Dukess sharing insider knowledge of the literary world of “great” writers and publishing. Henry’s wife, Tilly, is a highly acclaimed poet just reaching her full power in late middle age. Conversely, Henry’s career with the “The New Yorker” has grown staid, and he is currently puttering about in the mess of writing his memoir. Eve’s summer job is to get Henry unstuck, keep him organized and serve as a continuous reminder that he is truly clever and never mundane. Eve doesn’t find her role overtaxing; she enjoys his writing, even if it is old-fashioned, and he, in turn, treats her with endless patience and good-humor.
Complications build naturally and quickly, with Eve immediately hooking up with Henry’s son — just a singular, meaningless “hiccup.” Eve’s mother declares families can have only one genius and designates Eve’s mathematician brother to be theirs. The mother reduces Eve to a “bookish” sort, only slightly denigrating, but Dukess gives Eve a more loyal, local librarian friend, then uses their casual discussions to remind us of many old, great pieces of literature we can re-read or explore for the first time.
Eve’s eventual connection with Henry happens gently, with little to no sense of the sordid. Together, they come across as sweet and charming. Tilly seems unaware, or doesn’t really care. She is always occupied elsewhere, consumed by her poetry, and has negligible heat, friction or bang for her husband of 40-odd years.
A young friend of the family comes to adore Eve. Jeremy is poised on the cusp of a promising writing career, once he gets past a plagiarism hurdle, and he encourages Eve to pursue her writing talents.
Skies, dune grasses, temps and tides change for fall, and everyone goes to Henry’s closing party, a traditional costume challenge, where they get rip-roaring drunk, and the novel’s reveals unspool with enough surprise elements to please readers and to keep “The Last Book Party” closer to literature than not.
Dukess delivers the Cape Cod slice-of-life, complete with its casual approach to intimacy, perfectly. She handles complexity so easily one might mistake this novel as simple, rather than experiencing it as excellent lyrical writing by a mature voice with solid credentials in journalism and speechwriting.
Carolyn J. Kelly writes and edits technical and business communication in Manhattan.