“A gripping tale of family secrets, sibling rivalry and summer romance”
- Book: The House On Rockaway Beach
- Location: Long Island
- Author: Emma Burstall
Sometimes, when a combination of the summer heatwave and the stresses and strains of everyday life get me down, even I might be persuaded that a ‘comfort blanket’ story might be exactly what I am secretly craving. I really appreciated this lovely story, which although I was surprised I had finished in just a couple of average length sittings, seemed like such a much needed, leisurely paced, feel-good interlude, which cleared my mind and fed my soul.
Here is a brief overview of the story, so as not to give away too many spoilers…
Sophie and Celia are two middle-aged sisters, who were born and raised in England by parents of mixed heritage, their father Paul being English and their mother Teresa having Irish/American roots, although they both died young. It seems as though that’s all the girls have in common however, as they are completely unalike in all other respects and there has never really been any love lost between them. The elder sister, Sophie was never anything but troubled and rebellious as a child, didn’t achieve educationally, hasn’t been able to hold down a decent job, can’t make a relationship last and is a single parent to a young adult daughter, who although having benefitted from her mother’s unswerving love, has never really had a life role model to look up to. Celia has the seemingly perfect life, she a successful family doctor, married to a wealthy financial businessman, living in the perfect dream home with their two aspiring sons who have succeeded educationally and never brought any trouble to the door. She thrives on success, control and achievement, whether it be her own or someone else’s in her family.
Not having spoken, much less seen each other, for several years, the sisters find themselves making a transatlantic crossing to their mother, Teresa’s, family home at Rockaway Beach, where their grandmother has recently died and in her will has left her home to her two granddaughters. When they were young children, the trip to Long Island was an annual holiday event, however a family falling out with her devoutly Catholic father, meant that Teresa was no longer welcome to visit with her family. Celia wants nothing more than to get the place cleared out and sold, as for her the property holds no memories. However, Sophie remembers the house and her grandmother with much more affection, ideals she somehow needs to cling to, and would like to put down roots, renovate the place and turn it into an artist’s retreat.
With absence definitely not having made the heart grow fonder, the two are at each other’s throats from the word go. It is obvious that Celia has massive mental health problems she is trying to deal with alone and has been hiding from her family for years, or at least she thinks she has. Meanwhile Sophie finds an old letter in amongst her grandmother’s things which draws into question all the niggling doubts she has long harboured about her past. Just to add fuel to the fire, Local artist, Joe, seems to have the eye for Sophie, which doesn’t sit well with Celia, who although not really contemplating an extra-marital fling, does everything in her power to distract Joe’s attention from Sophie. When tempers finally flare, Celia drops a bombshell which rocks Sophie’s world to the core and leaves her desolate with the realisation that everything she had ever been brought up to believe, was in fact, based on lies and half-truths. For Sophie. much of her father’s cool, non-committal behaviour towards her over the years, is suddenly explained. But even then, Celia has to make it all about her, saying that Sophie has no idea just how difficult it was always being in the spotlight, having to live up to the high expectations her father had set for her and how under-achieving was never an option in his eyes.
Having delivered such a devastating blow, Celia calmly packs her bags and heads off home, leaving a distraught Sophie to complete the clear-out alone. True to form, she embarks on yet another disastrous relationship, although the new quirky friends she makes, on whom she knows she can totally rely, help to set her on the straight and narrow before she gets hurt. Without Celia around to muddy the waters, Sophie and Joe are able to set their own pace for whatever happens between them and together they manage to open contact with a part of Sophie’s past, who will hopefully fill in some of the missing pieces of her life and give her the chance to build some of the childhood memories which have so far eluded her. Celia has also been doing some serious soul-searching and has concluded that keeping such a secret for her father for all those years, has damaged so many lives, including her own. She has a frank discussion with her husband about all her problems and together they decide on a plan of action, which includes Celia having that same difficult conversation with Sophie’s daughter Layla.
The steps they all take next may not be an instant fix solution for anybody, but can it show the way forwards to a new understanding, the building of bonds and dreams and the forging of new aspirations and challenges?
Whilst on the whole, yes, this was quite a predictable and formulaic storyline and I knew exactly how everything was all meant to end, there were one or two twists which added extra unique and intriguing layers, which didn’t fully work themselves out until the end of the story, keeping me avidly turning the pages and engaged throughout. Author Emma Burstall has a fluent, compelling and evocative style of storytelling, whilst managing to create a truly beguiling and immersive experience, which is rich in atmosphere and beautifully textured.
This is a story of new beginnings, accepting your own failings without the need to punish yourself for them; whilst also accepting the failures of others, without feeling the need to pass judgement or admonishment. Of the true meaning of family, taking into account the damage keeping secrets from one another can do, when well-meaning motives go awry. Chasing a dream if it is at all attainable and you don’t damage anyone else in the process and maybe being generous enough to help someone else to fulfil their own aspirations along the way, if you are able to. Learning how good life in a relationship can be if both people are singing from the same song sheet and the giving isn’t all one sided. It also highlights the long-term misunderstandings and indeed damage, which can be done in crisis, when children are not treated with the honesty and respect they deserve as small adults, as half heard and imagined truths, seen and heard by a child, will often be remembered completely out of context. But most importantly of all, after the love of family are the lasting and enduring friendships we make along our way through life.
The story was narrated in short, seamless chapters, which kept everything moving forward towards its conclusion at a steady pace, whilst some lyrically descriptive passages were seamlessly woven in, bringing to life the charming coastal location of this lovely oasis, so close to the skyscrapers and concrete walkways of Manhattan. Despite the undoubted hustle and bustle of the summer rush to escape from the mainland, everything managed to exude a calming aura of peace and serenity, a soothing balm, conducive to the healing of a damaged spirit. This together with places names which were real and enabled me to track my journey, meant that my ‘armchair traveller’ needs, were more than satisfied.
A quite large cast of engaging and well-developed characters are reliable, authentic, easy to connect with and relate to, despite their complex individual idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities, sharing some great dynamics, energy and synergy between them. I guess the one person who bucked the trend was Terrell, who might possibly be considered a distraction in the overall storyline, although he did highlight how easily one determined and scheming person can so easily take advantage of someone in a more vulnerable state of mind. He was simply a self-centred individual, full of his own importance and ego, who felt that by clicking his fingers and saying all the right words, he would have Sophie begging for his favours, until he tired of her.
I really enjoyed author Emma Burstall’s seemingly effortless, relaxed style of writing and although this is the first of her books to date, I have read, I shall most definitely be adding some of her previously published stories into my schedule. I read for a whole range of reasons, but amongst them are enjoyment, entertainment, escapism and emotion. This story soundly ticked all those boxes and more besides, and I thoroughly enjoyed my journey.