Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Books: New Novels From Kat Devereaux, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, & Beatriz Williams

The Morgan Library in New York City. Photo by Jason Schott.


With summer upon us, this is a wonderful time to spend a lazy afternoon on the beach or in the park, and these three new novels will inspire and enlighten you: Escape to Florence, by Kat Devereaux; Promise, by Rachel Eliza Griffiths; and The Beach at Summerly, by Beatriz Williams.

Escape to Florence

By Kat Devereaux

Harper Paperbacks/HarperCollins Publishers; paperback, 272 pages; $18.99; available today, Tuesday, July 11

Kat Devereaux is a writer and translator with a special focus on Italian Literature, and Escape to Florence is her fiction debut. She was born near Edinburgh, Scotland, and has lived in the United States, Russia, France, Chile, Germany, and the Czech Republic before settling in Italy.

Florence is the setting for this stunning novel, which weaves the tale of two women, decades apart, whose lives are brought together by fate in this picturesque city.

Stella Infuriati is a fourteen-year-old and the youngest member of her town's resistance network during World War II in 1944. Using her bicycle, she delivers messages, supplies, and weapons to partisan groups in the Tuscan hills. 

A reliable resource to the resistance, Stella operates out of the local church, but after 1945, she seems to disappear from the records entirely, her disappearance overshadowed by her brother Achille's tragic death.

75 years later, in 2019, young writer Tori Mac Nair winds up in Florence after escaping an emotionally abusive marriage. She immigrated alone to the beautiful city her late grandmother had taught her to love, and she begins to dig into her grandmother's history. 

Tori find boxes full of letters that reveal secrets of the past that go back decades, intertwining Tori and Stella's fates forever. 

This novel is written in a captivating style that brings you into each woman's present and gives a window into their characters, with chapters told in each of their voices. 

This excerpt is from a chapter telling Stella's story: "If my resistance was unspectacular, so was my liberation.

Tucked away in a narrow valley on a minor tributary of the Arno, Romituzzo was protected from the major strategic points, across the hills in the Elsa Valley - San Gimignano, Poggibonsi, Certaldo, Castelfiorentino, Empoli - and of course the fighting there affected us. Enzo's mother and her colleagues were killed by a stray bomb. But we never had to live through bombardment ourselves; never had to rush underground and emerge again into a new, ruined world. Our damage was collateral, marginal by the standards of the time.

And when the Allies pursued the Germans northwards through Tuscany in the late summer of 1944, those same cities took the brunt of the conflict: San Gimignano, Poggibonsi, Certaldo, Catelfiorentino, Empoli. And as the Germans were driven back, destroying and burning and killing as they went, they simply pulled all of their troops out of the Valdana. We didn't have to fight them; in their eyes, our territory wasn't important enough to defend. But that doesn't mean we didn't have to fight at all. There were still plenty of local Fascists who didn't want to cede an inch of ground, who would fight to the death rather than admit themselves defeated. And that's how we got our freedom. Inch by inch, shot by shot."



By Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Random House; hardcover, 336 pages; $28.00; available this Tuesday, July 11th

Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet, visual artist, and novelist. She is a recipient of the Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy Award and the Patterson Poetry Prize and was a finalist for a NAACP Image Award. Her work has been published in the New York Times, The New Yorker, and Tin House, and she is also the recipient of fellowships including Cave Canem, Kimbilio, Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and Yaddo.

Promise is Griffith's debut novel, and it is about two Black sisters growing up in small-town New England who fight to protect their home, their bodies, and their dreams as the Civil Rights Movement sweeps the nation.

Set in the summer of 1957, there was a sense that something was shifting in the town of Salt Point. This was a place where people could indeed be fearful of the world beyond themselves, as most of them would be born and die without ever having gone more than twenty or thirty miles from houses that were crammed with generations of their families.

The Kindred sisters, Ezra and Cinthy, grew up with an abundance of love. That love came from their parents, who let them believe that the stories they tell on stars can come true; from their neighbors, the Junketts, the only other Black family in town, whose home is filled with spice-rubbed ribs and ground-shaking hugs; and they had love for their adopted hometown of Salt Point, a beautiful Maine village perched high up on coastal bluffs.

However, as the girls hit adoloescence, their white neighbors, including Ezra's best friend, Ruby, start to see their maturing bodies and minds in a different way. 

Then, news starts to filter in from different parts of the country with calls for freedom, equality, and justice for Black Americans, and the white villagers in Salt Point begin see the Kindreds and Junketts and threats to their way of life.

Violence, prejudice, and fear escalate, and bold Ezra and watchful Cinthy must reach deep inside the wells of love they've built to commit great acts of heroism and grace on the path to survival. 

Griffith's writing is rich and luminous, with incredibly deep description, and it celebrates one family's story of resistance. This book will break your heart, and then build it back up with courage, hope, and love.

In this excerpt, Griffiths sets the scene of what summer meant to the Kindred sisters, told in Cinthy's voice: "The day before our first day of school always signaled the end of the time Ezra and I loved most. Not time like the clocks that ticked and rang their alarms every morning; we know that time didn't really begin or end. What we meant by time was happiness, a careless joy that sprawled its warm, sun-stained arms through our days and dreams for eight glorious weeks until our teachers arrived back in our lives, and our parents remembered their rules about shoes, bathing, vocabulary quizzes, and home training.

More than anything, we prayed that the air would remain mild for as long as possible, mid-October even, so that we could retain some of our summer independence, free to roam the land we knew and loved. We weren't yet grown, but even the adults could pinpoint when time would tell us we would no longer be young.

We mourned summertime's ending and made predictions about autumn and ourselves. Mostly we repeated all the different ways that summer was more honest than the rest of the year. It was the only time we could wear shorts and cropped tops with little comment from our mother. Ezra and I were allowed to walk nearly anywhere we wanted - in the other seasons, we needed permission even to walk to the village docks. And the eating! How we could eat! Mama loosened her apron strings about salt and sugar. Each day, it felt like we were eating from the menu of our dreams - fresh corn, ice cream, sliced tomatoes with coarse salt and pepper, chilled lobster, root beer floats, watermelon, oysters, crab and shrimp salads, fried chicken, housemade lemon or raspberry sorbet, grilled peaches, potato salad, and red ice pops.

In the summer, the wildflowers returned, even in the village square. Some dead local official once believed the square, arranged around a small pond with a handful of benches, was a civil idea. Indeed, it would have been charming except there was the sea. Steps away from the square, down the narrow central passage of our village, the main street opened into a slender, shining pier where everything happened.

God faced the water."

The Beach At Summerly

By Beatriz Williams

William Morrow; hardcover, 368 pages; $30.00

Beatriz Williams is the bestselling author of fifteen novels, including Our Woman in Moscow, The Summer Wives, plus the acclaimed Wicked City Prohibition series, and The Lost Summers of Newport, which she co-wrote with Lauren Willig and Karen White. She is a native of Seattle who graduated from Stanford and earned an MBA in finance from Columbia University. Williams lived with her husband and four children near the Connecticut shore.

The Beach At Summerly is a gorgeous sun-washed summer novel set in postwar New England, rich with secrets and Cold War intrigue. It is a story about new love, old rivalries, and the exclusive island enclave readers were first introduced to in The Summer Wives.

Set in June 1946, the residents of Winthrop Island prepare for the first summer season after the sacrifice of war, and a glamorous new figure moves into the guest cottage at Summerly, the idyllic seaside estate of the wealthy Peabody family. 

Emilia Winthrop is the daughter of Summerly's year-round caretaker and a descendant of the island's settlers, and Olive Rainsford opens a window into a world of shining possibility.

While Emilia spent the war years caring for her incapacitated mother, Olive traveled the world, married fascinating men, and involved herself in political causes. Olive is also the beloved aunt of the two surviving Peabody sons, Amory and Shep, with whom Emilia had a tangled romantic history. 

As the summer moves along, Emilia and Olive develop a deep rapport, with Olive urging her to leave the island for a life of adventure, while romance blossoms with the sturdy and honorable Shep. 

That heady promise of Peabody patronage is dashed when Sumner Fox, and FBI agent, arrives and demands Emilia's help to capture a Soviet agent who's transmitting vital intelligence on the West's atomic weapon program from somewhere inside the Summerly estate.

The story then shifts eight years later, to April 1954, with Summerly is boarded up, and Emilia has rebuilt her shattered life as a professor at Wellesley College, when shocking news arrives from Washington. 

The traitor that Emilia helped convict is about to be swapped for an American spy imprisoned in the Soviet Union, but with a mysterious condition that only Emilia can fulfill. She is summoned to CIA headquarters, where she is forced to confront the harrowing consequences of her actions that fateful summer, and a choice that could destroy the Peabody family, as well as Emilia's chance for redemption, all over again.

In this excerpt, Emilia has received the news about Summerly

"APRIL 1954 

Wellesley, Massachusetts

Aunt Benedita telephones long-distance just as I'm rushing out the door. She's one of those people who has a knack for it.

'I can't talk right now,' I tell her. 'I'm late for class.'

'You'll want to hear this. Your father told me that Tom Donnelly and his boys started to work on a new job.'

'Gee, that's terrific. You know how I love hearing all the little tidbits from back home.'

'Don't you want to know whose house they're working on?'

'Look, Auntie, I know you don't believe it, but a mile away from where I stand at this telephone, there's a lecture hall filled with undergraduates desperate to hear me speak about the Salem witch trials. Could you put them out of their misery?'

Aunt Benedita disregards my pique. That's how we've remained on speaking terms, all these years.

'They're fixing up Summerly,' she says.

Lucky for me, an armchair sits next to the table where we keep the telephone. I land on it hard and notice that the telephone cord has somehow gotten twisted around the table leg. I unwind the cord while Aunt Benedita's voice leaks out of the earpiece, repeating my name. When I put the receiver back to my ear, the darn thing shakes in my hand, all by itself.

'Good for them,' I tell her.

OUTSIDE, THE AIR SMELLS GREEN. The temperature is positively balmy. The blossoms are popping out at last in their pinks and whites. Even after all these years on the mainland, I can't look on a blossoming tree without my throat feeling sore. You simply don't get blossoming trees on Winthrop Island. It seems so extravagant. The sky has turned an ultramarine shade of blue and the blossoms nod and waft against this exemplary field. I hurry across the quadrangle toward Founders Hall and try not to mind all the beauty, but it hits my gut all the same.

I wasn't exactly lying to Aunt Benedita about the lecture hall, but you might say I was stretching the truth. I still have time to hurry up the steps, deposit my belongings in the fourth-floor telephone booth known as my office, and drink a cup of muddy coffee before presenting myself in the classroom two minutes before the lecture's due to begin. It's the end of April and the air is green and balmy, as I said, and most of my students have given up trying to arrive early, if at all. 'Women in Early Colonial America" is a brand-new course in the history department curriculum - a course I designed myself, if you must know - but I'm afraid nobody seems to care much about colonial history in these days of hydrogen bombs and Jackson Pollock, even though I try to present the subject with a certain amount of panache.

Still, a few young ladies have managed to drag themselves through the dreaming blossoms and into the classroom, and that's all that matters, really. To reach a few fresh minds, to plant some germ of inspiration. That girl in the second row, for example. The light, curling brown hair and the sharp chin; the dark, narrow eyes like a young fox. She sets that inquisitive chin into her palm and loses herself in the parable and I say to myself, in a thought that floats in parallel to my words and my theatrical gestures, That's it, honey, just sink yourself into the past, so you don't have to spend so much time in the awful present."

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