The definition of a summer read evolves with the times, and even more so this year. As the weather warms and the pandemic wanes in the United States, what readers are looking for on the page will vary dramatically. Some might be in the mood for a whodunit, and others might feel pulled toward something more contemplative about the state of the world. But while the summer book crosses all genres, certain themes are transcendent: weddings, the beach, romance and escape in its many forms.
Here are a few new and old classics to revisit this season.
‘Leave the World Behind’
by Rumaan Alam (2020)
This novel took the world by storm last fall, when it debuted into a world that felt just as dystopic as the one it created. It tells of a Brooklyn family whose Hamptons vacation veers from the script when an inexplicable catastrophe causes the world to stop. The family is joined by the owners of their rental home, who have showed up after being stranded amid the chaos. As Rumaan Alam depicts two couples struggling to make sense of the disaster they are facing, he explores race, parenting and the assumptions we make about one another.
‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’
by Patricia Highsmith (1955)
For those of us dreaming of summer sojourns to the south of Italy, Patricia Highsmith’s incredibly transportive midcentury novel is a highly enjoyable alternative. In the first of her Ripley novels, we see obsession take hold with the titular con artist when he ingratiates himself into a jet-setting crowd of beautiful and well-heeled Americans abroad. The building suspense and intrigue make this a taut novel (one that is now being adapted into a television series following the celebrated 1999 film) and a compulsively readable classic.
‘How Stella Got Her Groove Back’
by Terry McMillan (1996)
The restorative and transformative powers of vacation are on full display in this Terry McMillan novel, which also pairs perfectly with a day by the pool. Stella’s high-powered life as an investment analyst and single mother looks successful on paper but has left her with a feeling that something’s missing. Her carefully crafted identity is examined after a trip to Jamaica, where an unexpected romance with a younger man forces her to rethink what she truly wants.
by Colson Whitehead (2009)
Before writing Pulitzer Prize winners “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys” (as well as the upcoming “Harlem Shuffle”), Colson Whitehead put out this moving and contemplative look at summertime in the Hamptons for a young Black boy, whose life has echoes of Whitehead’s own. Benji, 15 and a New York City private-school student, is spending the summer of 1985 in his family’s home in Sag Harbor, a fancy enclave historically popular with Black families. What ensues is a tenderhearted coming-of-age story fused with a sharp look at the intersections of race and class.
‘Evil Under the Sun’
by Agatha Christie (1937)
Agatha Christie novels have served as utterly dependable summer crime classics for decades. In this Hercule Poirot installment, the Belgian detective’s holiday at an idyllic English hotel suffers the signature interruption of a ghastly murder. This time it’s a flirtatious wife and stepmother who met her untimely end in a remote beach cove, and our mustachioed hero must deduce which of the assembled guests did the deed. The good news? If you enjoy this, there’s 81 more Christie mysteries where it came from.
‘Call Me By Your Name’
by André Aciman (2007)
The ’80s novel, which was given new life by the 2017 film adaptation, has all the hallmarks of a summer read — a secretive seasonal romance in a stunning European locale — with bona fide literary heft. This story is both gorgeous and heartbreaking in its depiction of teenage longing and awakening seen through the eyes of young protagonist.
by Judy Blume (1998)
One of Judy Blume’s four adult novels, this cult favorite maintains the coming-of-age themes seen in her beloved books for younger readers. At the center of “Summer Sisters” are Caitlin and Vix, two diametrically opposed personalities who become inextricably bonded after Caitlin joins Vix on her family’s annual pilgrimage to Martha’s Vineyard. The yearly getaways shape their teenage years as each discovers romance and adulthood. Their grown-up lives take them on different paths, though ones that continue to converge throughout their lives.
by Dorothy West (1995)
Dorothy West’s final book and her first novel in a 47-year period, “The Wedding” is set in 1953 during the wedding weekend of the favorite daughter of upper-class parents. Shelby has shaken up her family and their tight-knit Black community in Martha’s Vineyard by choosing to marry a white musician. The balance that was once carefully maintained is upended as guests explore the events in their lives that have led to this shifting moment, in a beautiful and devastating examination of family, society and race.
by Maggie Shipstead (2013)
Maggie Shipstead’s debut novel follows the time-tested formula that a book centered on a wedding naturally includes tense family dynamics, long-lost friends, love and a scenic locale, all compressed into the span of a few days. “Seating Arrangements,” which takes a sharp and satirical look at elitist WASP culture, doesn’t disappoint. In the days leading up to the marriage of Daphne, whose parents didn’t expect her to be heavily pregnant on her wedding day, a cast of dysfunctional and entitled guests gather on a small island, where, inevitably, sexual shenanigans ensue.
‘The Interestings’ by Meg Wolitzer (2013)
When a group of six friends meet at a summer arts camp in upstate New York in the mid-'70s, all with their own deep creative pursuits, their connection leads to a lifelong bond. “The Interestings” explores the ecstasy and heartbreak of artistic longings, the joy of making it, the crushing despair of failure and frustration of seeing your friends find fame as you struggle. Meg Wolitzer beautifully examines the struggles of following (or relinquishing) your dreams and the tensions inherent in longtime friendships. — NYT