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  • Written by Hilma Wolitzer
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A Novel

Written by Hilma WolitzerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Hilma Wolitzer


List Price: $9.99


On Sale: May 22, 2007
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-345-50030-4
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Can reading change your life?

Following her acclaimed novel The Doctor’s Daughter, award-winning author Hilma Wolitzer has now written a stirring tale about friendship, romance, inspiration, longing, and, especially, the love of good books. Summer Reading offers a seductive glimpse into the intersecting lives of three very different women.

Summer in the Hamptons means crowded beaches during the day and lavish parties in the evening, but Angela Graves, a retired English professor, prefers the company of Gabriel García Márquez and Charlotte Brontë. Her only steady social contacts are with the women in the reading groups she leads, among them, is wealthy Lissy Snyder, a beautiful newlywed who hosts the twice-monthly meetings of the Page Turners and takes pains to hide a reading disability and her emotional neediness. Hamptons local Michelle Cutty, Lissy’s housecleaner, eavesdrops on the group’s discussions–of books and gossip–when she’s not snooping through Lissy’s closets.

All three women secretly struggle with troubling personal issues that threaten the tenuous balance of their lives: Lissy, abandoned by her father in childhood, is now the unwilling stepmother of her husband’s hostile children; Michelle, resentful of the moneyed arrogance of the jet-setting, seasonal “invaders,” can’t secure a commitment from her fisherman boyfriend; and solitary, bookish Angela still bears the shameful memory of a disastrous love affair that took place long ago.

As Angela encourages the Page Turners to identify with the literary heroines of Trollope and Flaubert, the books–in fact, the act of reading itself–will influence the tough choices the women must make. Stunningly evocative and richly imagined, Summer Reading explores the meaning and consequences of living an authentic life.

From the Hardcover edition.


Alyssa Snyder Is Troubled

Lissy Snyder hated nature, especially its lavish variety on the eastern end of Long Island. All those sudden winged or crawly creatures everywhere, feeding on one another and on you, too, if you weren’t vigilant. Ants in the pantry, moths batting at the lamps, something living or dead plucked discreetly from the pool every day. And then there were the piano-tuner birds that shrieked or sang the same two notes incessantly, and the ones that seemed to be typing in the woods behind the house. Once in a while, Lissy stood at the spruce-lined border of the property and yelled “Shut up shut up shut up!” just to get a little peace and quiet. But they would begin again the moment she turned her back, like a rowdy junior high school class mocking a substitute teacher.

She had sweet-talked Jeffrey into buying a beach house while they were still on their honeymoon, a time he would have gladly agreed to anything. How gorgeous and powerful and canny she’d felt! But she hadn’t bargained for the rampant flora and fauna in Sagaponack. That was supposed to be upstate somewhere, or in New England, where wildlife belonged, where rabid bats were as common as houseflies, and bears were said to be driven mad by menstruating women.

In Lissy’s childhood memory of an idyllic Southampton summer, before her father left, before the death of her beloved nanny, there was a vast velveteen lawn skirting her cousins’ house and, behind it, the sand dunes that led to the sea, and everything that lived there knew its place: the lobsters in their traps or in a citrus vinaigrette, the other secrets of the deep kept appropriately secret. Fireflies flashed around the porches at night, accompanied by the strumming of hidden crickets, but they’d seemed pretty harmless; her Grandmother Ellis had called their performance “a charming petit son et lumière.

Now, on a balmy June day during her second Sagaponack season, Lissy peered anxiously into the patio garden. Everything had to look perfect for that afternoon’s meeting of her summer reading club, the Page Turners; she’d already plumped the cushions in the screened gazebo, where they convened. The group was led by Angela Graves, who’d taught English Lit at some tiny women’s college in Texas a million years ago. Ardith Templeton had found her through an ad the previous winter in the East Hampton Star. “Enhance your summer with the company of great books. Retired professor of literature will lead the way.”

The flowers that Pedro and his crew tended were nice enough, fragrant and colorful, except for all the bees they attracted, and the way their brief blooming reminded Lissy of her own mortality. She would turn twenty-eight in October, and although none of her mirrors, not even the cruelly lit and magnified one on her dressing room table, had yet hinted at the ravages of aging or even the slightest dimming of her crisp blondness, she felt that her shelf life had begun to expire. Maybe all that required reading–never her strong suit–was undoing her, or it could just be the forbidding example of Angela herself, who must have faced the sun fearlessly all her life and was now a bas-relief of age spots and wrinkles.

Lissy had felt flattered when Debby and Joy, whom she knew from yoga class in the city, invited her to join the book club. And she was thrilled when they’d accepted her offer of a designated meeting place, along with the name she had come up with for them. The original Page Turners had been the group for slower readers she’d been made to join in the third grade at the Betsy Ross Day School, where the letters of the alphabet had a habit of reversing themselves to her, and she often had to be coaxed into concentration. But she didn’t mention any of that to her current book group friends.

Everyone in the Hamptons wanted to get to know beautiful and aloof Ardith better. She was like those savvy, popular girls at school in whose orbit Lissy had dizzily spun without ever coming any closer to them. And Larry Templeton was someone important in Jeffrey’s corporate world. Lissy envisioned a brilliant, career-enhancing friendship evolving from this casual connection, and Jeffrey’s astonished pride in her.

Every other Tuesday since Memorial Day, Angela Graves drove her blue Chevy Neon from The Springs to Lissy’s more desirable neighborhood and sat among the dewy-skinned young members of the grown-up Page Turners, a veritable bulletin from their grim future. Some of the books she extolled were equally grim Victorian novels, in which infants or their new mothers routinely died and, not surprisingly, sexual repression was the rage.

Lissy had been thinking, on and off, about having a baby. Not that she was beset by maternal yearnings, but perhaps it was time. It wasn’t as if she had a real career to interrupt; even she knew that being a part-time, freelance party planner wasn’t a serious or inspired pursuit. The sprinkling of referrals she’d had so far had been favors from business acquaintances of Jeffrey’s: a couple of toddlers’ birthday parties, an anniversary dinner for someone’s senile in-laws. Balloons and baby lamb chops for every occasion, and all the honorees equally insensible.

Besides, a few of Lissy’s friends had started families already, bucking the national trend of waiting until your ovaries dried up and fell off. She might well be in on the beginning of a new trend. It astonished her sometimes that she made so many crucial decisions this way, guided by arbitrary social patterns rather than passion.

But it was how she’d been raised, as if everything depended on some invisible, incontestable clock. Time for dinner, hungry or not. Time for bed (ditto for sleepiness). Time for school, let go of Mummy’s hand, Alyssa! Time for deflowering. Time to get married. And why not; how did you ever know if you were really in love, anyway?

Still, starting a family might be inconvenient, or worse, and especially complicated right now. If, as Angela Graves suggested, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was merely an elaborate metaphor for childbirth, what could one expect? Jeffrey and Lissy would have custody of little Miles and Miranda, who would require all of her energy and concentration, during the final weeks of the summer, after their mother brought them back from a European trip. Lissy could play at mothering then, if those beautiful but daunting children allowed it, and make an informed decision for once. Why, it might even be fun.

She was supposed to have finished reading Can You Forgive Her? for today’s session of the Page Turners, although it was incredibly long and printed in such microscopic type. Angela had given them the title back in January, just after they’d first signed up, instructing them to start reading it then, but Lissy hadn’t gotten around to it right away.
And now, flailing to catch up, it seemed more like winter reading to her–that endless blizzard of pages flecked with the blown soot of words. She skimmed as quickly as she could through the chapters that dealt with politics and money, in favor of the romantic passages. But even sounding out the characters’ names as she flipped through the book–Alice Vavasor, Lady Glencora, Plantagenet–badly fatigued her. Imagine saddling a child with a name like Plantagenet!

The bloated little paperback had been wedged open and propped against the sugar bowl as she ate breakfast that morning, and it was dangling from her hand as she peeked into the flower garden later. In fact, she’d hardly been seen without it for the past few weeks. Jeffrey carefully pried it from her sleeping fingers at night, and he always tucked in one of his business cards to save her place, which never seemed to change. Chapter 14, Alice Vavasor Becomes Troubled. Lissy relied on the chapter headings–she’d read all of those right away. They gave the novel a somewhat predictable shape, something she wouldn’t have minded having in her own life. Jeffrey Makes a Killing on Wall Street. Lissy Sparkles in Book Discussion Group. Wherein the Myth of the Evil Stepmother Is Dispelled.

Jeffrey had made more than a few killings on Wall Street, most of them back in the crazy early nineties–the go-go years–long before she even knew him. When she was still a teenager! And then, like everybody, he’d lost a bundle in the downswing. He was still wealthy, though, by most standards, when he and Lissy met and married two years before. There was more than enough for a showy courtship and wedding; this house they’d christened Summerspell; his sailboat, the Argo; those outrageous alimony and child support payments; and the extravagant Manhattan life he and his new bride pursued.

But he fretted about the past and about the future. She would often discover him in the middle of the night, a prisoner of his own bad dreams in striped pajamas, his worried pale face eerily illuminated by the glow of his computer screen as he tracked the global markets. Jeffrey was haunted by nonfinancial concerns, too, especially his absentee fatherhood and his survival of the World Trade Center disaster, when so many of his colleagues had perished. To complicate matters even further, he believed that his life had been saved by his then four-year-old son, Miles, whose preschool orientation meeting Jeffrey had attended that fateful morning, instead of going to work on the ninety-sixth floor of the first tower to be hit.

And then there were the letters from Danielle, his ex-wife, so full of vitriol they seemed to burn his fingers when he opened them. Lissy sometimes read them in the privacy of her bathroom later, and felt just as stung by their tone and content. How could she accuse him of abandoning her and the children when he was so generous, and still seemed to have one foot firmly in their lives?

Danielle and Jeffrey had already been estranged when Lissy met him, but Danielle referred to her as “that woman” or “your stupid, blond slut” in her letters as if Lissy were some kind of home-wrecking whore and not his legal, loving wife. And she wasn’t stupid, even if she felt that way sometimes. Worst of all, Danielle always addressed him as Jeffie, a nickname from his past that looked disturbingly like an endearment on the page, despite the nasty context.

On Jeffrey’s troubled nights, Lissy would cluck at him and urge him back to bed, where she’d assume his insomnia and a condensed version of some of his fears–the less personal ones–while he snored peacefully beside her. What if they became poor, or at least not as rich anymore? That was where the chapter headings might have come in handy. Would she have stuck things out? Did she love Jeffrey for himself? Who was he, exactly? How hard it was to separate and sort out the many facets of identity and affection and commitment.

And then he made his comeback, a spectacular and unique killing on some combination of investments and strategies–something to do with offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico–that made him the envy of the financial community and the uneasy focus of the SEC for a while. His business card, placed so inconspicuously in her Trollope that it seemed to be a part of the text, soothed her with its tone of authority: jeffrey j. snyder, esq. president and cfo world trade consultants. But like so many Victorian housewives, real and fictional, she didn’t know precisely what her husband did for a living.

Left to her own choice of reading material, Lissy would have purchased a pile of easy, glossy beach books gleaned from the bestseller lists and thumbed her way through the thick, perfumed summer issues of Vanity Fair and Hamptons. Her membership in the Page Turners forced her into an attitude of self-improvement, although she had yet to sparkle or even overcome her shyness at the meetings any more than she ever had in the classroom. If she’d been able to finish Can You Forgive Her? or any of the shorter assigned novels in time for the appointed discussions, she might have fared better.

Unfortunately, she had never moved up to the Whiz Kids, the highest-level reading group at Betsy Ross, and her difficulty with the printed word served as a soporific–more efficiently now than even sex or Ambien–as it had most of her life. She would begin to doze off soon after she began reading, her eyes losing focus first, then the page she’d intended to turn becoming impossibly heavy, even when she was curious about the story’s outcome.

In college her roommate, a scholarship grind named Cynthia Ann Pope, had shared voluminous class notes with Lissy and even wrote some of her papers in exchange for clothing and cash. These days, without Cynthia Ann’s assistance, Lissy browsed through or just read part of the way into most books, and then hastily checked out plot summaries and criticism on the Internet. She’d Googled her research for Can You Forgive Her? even before she’d begun reading the first page. So she knew, if the title hadn’t been a big enough hint, that a moral decision was begged of the reader by Trollope, and that most academics, just like Trollope’s heroine, had voted in favor of decency and true love. She could probably safely take that stance herself during the discussion.

But right now she had to focus on the refreshments required of her as the Page Turners’ hostess, the one job at which she felt proficient. In the kitchen, that sullen new dayworker–Jo Ann Cutty’s daughter, what was her name again?–skulked at the sink. The girl needed to tweeze her eyebrows and do something about her posture. Lissy said, “Hi!” and smiled at her with forced friendliness. Without waiting for the usual scowling response, she opened the refrigerator to check on the pile of creamy little sandwiches under their sheltering dome, and the pitcher of mango mint iced tea working up an appealing cold sweat on the shelf just above.

Then she went to the powder room, where the rose petals of soap she’d brought from Paris, when the beach house was still only a postcoital tease, lay nestled in a Lucite shell. She patted the impeccable, monogrammed linen guest towels and gazed critically at herself in the mirror. But instead of touching up her lipstick or adjusting an errant strand of hair, she found herself looking into her own eyes and wondering if she would have forgiven Alice Vavasor for whatever it was she’d done. Well, she didn’t have to decide that very second; she could just wait and see what the others said. But then she was ambushed by another stray thought–would she ever do anything that would require the forgiveness of strangers?–and felt a shivery thrill of prescience.

From the Hardcover edition.
Hilma Wolitzer|Author Q&A

About Hilma Wolitzer

Hilma Wolitzer - Summer Reading

Photo © Deborah Copaken Kogan

Hilma Wolitzer is the author of several novels, including Summer Reading, The Doctor’s Daughter, Hearts, Ending, and Tunnel of Love, as well as a nonfiction book, The Company of Writers. She is a recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Barnes & Noble Writer for Writers Award.  She has taught writing at the University of Iowa, New York University, and Columbia University.

From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Hilma Wolitzer

ELINOR LIPMAN is the author of eight wry (her own understated adjective) novels, including Then She Found Me, The Inn at Lake Devine, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, and, most recently, the award-winning My Latest Grievance.

Elinor Lipman: Where were you born and brought up?

Hilma Wolitzer: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and I’ve never lost my Brooklyn accent, or my interest in neighborhood life.

E.L. What were you like as a little girl?

H.W. A daydreamer, and the kind of kid who was always reading, from the back of the cereal box at breakfast to the label on the shampoo bottle in the bathtub at night. I was also a natural listener (or snoop) who liked to lie under the kitchen table and eavesdrop on the grown-ups (probably before I’d learned to read).

E.L. Were you a sullen or cheerful teen?

H.W. Like most teenagers, I was a monster of shifting moods. There were three of us, all girls, and my mother once said she would have been happy to have been somewhere else during our adolescence. When I had daughters myself, I understood what she meant.

E.L. Did you and your husband meet in a way that has worked its way into your fiction?

H.W. Not yet, perhaps because it doesn’t seem that interesting, at least from a fictional point of view. We were both invited to the same party and I forgot to go (still daydreaming, probably), and the hostess gave him my telephone number.

E.L. Your first published story was titled “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket.” I’m trying to work that into a question just because I love it so much. Okay, how about: Take me back to that first acceptance letter.

H.W. It wasn’t a letter, actually. It was a phone call from my agent, saying that The Saturday Evening Post was going to buy a story. I think I went deaf for a moment, or maybe I was just screaming too much to properly hear her, because I had to call her right back and make her repeat the whole thing. It was especially thrilling because I was a late bloomer, already the mother of two, and sort of committed to a life of domesticity (hence that first title, maybe?).

E.L. Another favorite work-related phone call or letter?

H.W. It’s a toss-up between a fan letter from the novelist Richard Yates, and one from a child whose school I’d visited, who wrote to say that I’d “really expired” her.

E.L. In the last sentence of Summer Reading’s first chapter, you write (about Lissy): “But then she was ambushed by another stray thought—would she ever do anything that would require the forgiveness of strangers?—and felt a shivery thrill of prescience.” As you wrote that, did you yet know what Lissy was referring to? Which, of course, is my teasing you into telling “how much is outline and how much is intuition?”

H.W. I didn’t know what Lissy was going to do, because I write the way I read—to find out what happens to the characters. It’s that element of suspense that keeps me going through a long manuscript. It’s risky to write that way, because sometimes the story just peters out, but preparing an outline seems too rigid, too unexciting.

E.L. I read that during the long hiatus between Tunnel of Love and The Doctor’s Daughter, you’d go to the computer, “peck out a page or two,” hate what you’d written, and escape by falling asleep at the keyboard. That’s not writer’s block, is it?

H.W. It sounds more like narcolepsy, doesn’t it? But I do think falling asleep was just another way of avoiding the blankness during a very long—practically terminal—writer’s block. By definition, a writer is someone who writes, and squeezing out “a page or two” doesn’t really count if nothing ever follows.

E.L. Do you have any pet hates in a book you are reading (. . . or putting down)?

H.W. Well, I don’t like being told by the writer how to feel. The characters themselves have to raise my emotions. It’s a case of that old, but honorable, writing workshop saw: “Show, don’t tell.” To get lost in a book, the reader has to first lose awareness of the author, the wizard behind the curtain.

E.L. Guilty pleasure? (You can cop out with a fast-food item or a cheesy novel, but I’m hoping there’s an American Idol or All My Children to report.)

H.W. Quiz shows and New York Mets games (the entire season).

E.L. Can you tell us anything about the book (we hope) you are working on?

H.W. I’m writing about late love, and trying to do it from a male point of view. Men have been writing brilliantly about women for a long time, but I don’t think that women writers have been as successful with male protagonists. I think it has something to do with the fact that although men wear their genitalia on the outside of their bodies, they tend to keep their feelings hidden, and that women are precisely the opposite. It’s a real challenge to imagine the inner life of such a true “other.”

E.L. If you had to sum up the relationship between your novels and Hollywood in under ten words, what would you say?

H.W. Always an option, never a bride.

E.L. You’ve taught writing (famously, don’t be modest) and began writing in a fiction workshop taught by Anatole Broyard. Can you throw out some words that describe what good workshop leading takes?

H.W. A balance of honesty and charity pretty much sums it up. It’s scary to put your work out there for criticism, so there has to be some respect and compassion for the writer, but false praise doesn’t really help. I always tell a new group that the goal of a writing workshop is revision, not suicide.

E.L. The question you most hate to answer when hands go up at a bookstore reading?

H.W. “Where do you get your ideas?” If I knew, I’d run right out and get a fresh batch.

E.L. Who reads your works-in-progress?

H.W. My poor family. But I do lots of stuff for them, too.

E.L. Is there a book you’ve read more than twice?

H.W. Yes, there are a few of them, including To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West. I do it partly for renewed pleasure and partly to try to see how they’re made.

E.L. What mementos/photos/quotes/cartoons/awards/doodads are on display around your workspace?

H.W. Family photos, of course, and one of me and the Mets’ first baseman, Keith Hernandez (don’t ask!); a photo of Virginia Woolf and another of Colette; grandchildren’s artwork (inspiring!); a Maurice Sendak salute to Bill Clinton’s inauguration; and a few plaques.

E.L. Plaques? Discuss, please.

H.W. They’re awards for writing, and I’m proud of them or they wouldn’t be hanging up. But if you live long enough, you’re bound to gather a few laurels.

E.L. If you could have any famous people, living or dead, around your table for dinner next week, who would they be?

H.W. John and Abigail Adams, Jackie Robinson, Groucho Marx, and Julia Child.

E.L. What makes you feel satisfied at the end of the day?

H.W. Everyone I love home safe and sound, and a few good pages under my belt.



“Summer Reading is a joy from start to finish; a wonderful book for any season.”
–Jane Hamilton

Praise for Hilma Wolitzer’s The Doctor’s Daughter

“Triumphant . . . a fast-paced novel so well written you want to linger over it.”
–The New York Times Book Review

“Packs an emotional wallop . . . Wolitzer’s evocation of Alice’s first-person narration is nuanced, sensitive, keenly observant, her prose measured, polished, nimble.”
–The Philadelphia Inquirer

“The Doctor’s Daughter reminds us what novels can do. Wolitzer takes a simple, touching, human situation and enlarges it into a heartbreaking and permanent story of loss and renewal.”
–Adam Gopnik

“A beautiful tale of coming apart and reconciliation.”
–A. M. Homes

From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Consider the epigraph of Summer Reading:
“Emma sought to learn what was really meant in life by the words ‘happiness,’ ‘passion,’ and ‘intoxication’—words that had seemed so beautiful to her in books.”
—Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Are happiness, passion, and intoxication more beautiful in real life than in books? Why or why not?

2. Why does Angela’s comment about rooms, gardens, and gowns being the wallpaper of the story’s soul resonate with Lissy (page 28)? If the wallpaper of Lissy’s soul was stripped away, what would be left? What would be left of Angela? Later in the novel, Lissy wonders, “Wasn’t it possible to keep the wallpaper without giving up the soul?” (page 239). What do you think?

3. The Page Turners read Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? Is there anyone in Summer Reading who needs forgiveness? As the reader, can you forgive these characters?

4. Sleeping Beauty asks “Where am I?” upon waking from her century-long slumber. Why does Lissy repeat the same question? Why does Angela repeat the line from the Brothers Grimm book of fairy tales: “My business is with your father and not with you”? What is the significance of these quotations?

5. Why is it so important to Angela to be in touch with Charlotte? What does she hope to gain? What does Charlotte want from the friendship?

6. Why does Lissy’s mother tell her that Evie died? Why, later, does she imply that it was Lissy’s fault? What kind of effect does Evie and Lissy’s reunion have on the two women?

7. Was it only jealous spite, as Angela assumes, that makes Jenna hang the nude pen-and-ink drawing?

8. How would you explain the difference in Jo Ann and Michelle’s attitudes toward the “summer people”?

9. Lissy wonders whether the life lesson came at the end of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, but decides that “you didn’t have to read it all the way through if you didn’t want to” (page 105). What does this say about Lissy?

10. Why are Lissy and Michelle so uncomfortable when they lock eyes in the kitchen during Lissy and Jeffrey’s brunch (pages 80–81)?

11. On page 145, Hank suggests that Kayla write about Michelle for her essay on an American heroine of her choice. Why? How do you explain Michelle’s reaction?

12. Is the ending of Summer Reading realistic? Could the events of this novel have happened in “real life”? How could the

13. Do you believe Angela’s thesis that literature teaches one to live? Or are “the answers only to be found in the living itself,” as she wonders on page 183? What does she believe at the end of the novel? What about Lissy? Michelle? If you agree that reading can change your life, which books have had the greatest effect on you and why?

14. Do any of the three women whose lives intersect that summer succeed in living an authentic life? Why or why not? What is authentic about your life?

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