The Summerhouse reads like Jude Deveraux doing Patricia Gaffney, a la The Saving Graces, in her own sweet, goofy way. The results are uneven but entertaining and surprisingly moving.
Nineteen years ago, three young women met while waiting in line at a motor vehicles office in New York City. They were all newcomers seeking fame and fortune, eager to take on the world. After an enjoyable afternoon together, the women went their separate ways. Years later, Ellie Abbott reunites the three at her therapist's summerhouse in Maine for a weekend that will change their lives.
Life has not been kind to the women. Ellie's dreams of becoming an artist have not been realized, although she is the author of a highly successful romantic suspense series. But her self-esteem and finances are in a shambles after a messy divorce. Madison Appleby is now a far cry from the Montana beauty who hoped to become the next supermodel; she's bitter, barren and haggard. And Leslie Headrick, the once-aspiring dancer with a body that could stop traffic, is now a harried homemaker who suspects her husband of having an affair with his nubile assistant.
The three women share their sad stories, commiserate, and wonder what's left in life for them. But then they encounter the mysterious Madame Zoya, who claims she can send the women back in time to a pivotal point in their lives for three weeks. They will then be able to re-live that period, and make different choices from the ones they originally made. Can the women really go back and change their lives? Will they choose the new lives they've made for themselves, or decide that they're content with the status quo? Will they want to remember what they've changed, or forget that their previous lives ever existed?
An intriguing premise, but veteran author Deveraux stumbles on the execution. There are some lovely moments in the story, such as when Madison tells the women about the summer when she met her soul mate. Her recollections reveal a romantic, poignant but doomed relationship. The novel also features lively girl talk, as the three women exchange quick-witted, good-natured barbs:
But Deveraux isn't a big fan of structure. The narrative jumps from one point to the next without much logic, as if Deveraux doesn't know where she's going until she gets there. It didn't surprise me when Ellie, the author, describes her own writing process, which sounds eerily familiar: "If I knew what was going to happen, why would I bother to write the story?"
"Past lives?" Madison asked, eyebrows raised. "Gee, I'd sure love to find out that I've done stupid things for centuries."
"You were probably a great beauty then too. Maybe you were some king's favorite courtesan," Ellie said.
"So why do I get courtesan and not queen?" Madison asked. "Why do I have to be illegal as well as immoral?"
"In real life queens are never actually beautiful. They're chosen for their lineage, not their looks."
"Does this include Princess Diana?" Madison shot back.
"She didn't make it to queen, did she?" Ellie said, one eyebrow raised.
The plot is weakened by logic holes galore, starting with the extremely low probability that three women would celebrate their 21st birthdays by getting a New York City driver's license. Hardly anyone in the City drives, so getting a license wouldn't be a priority for most people. Also, why would Ellie's therapist allow a client to borrow her summerhouse? If Madison is telling the women her story of the past 19 years, why is one section narrated from her love interest's point of view? Why is an under-developed murder mystery suddenly thrown into the mix?
The plot holes and the rambling structure make The Summerhouse less enjoyable than it could have been. Still, as a woman who is staring 40 right in the face, the idea of looking back and wondering what I might have changed provided me with a few worthwhile moments of introspection.
Jude Deveraux will never be mistaken for Pat Gaffney or Barbara Delinsky, but she writes women's fiction in her own unique way. If you're a Deveraux fan, you won't be disappointed. If you need a quick, easy read to take to your own summerhouse or beach, you could do a lot worse.