A very Maine-y rom-com — and three other new summer reads with the Pine Tree State at their heart.
Evvie Drake Starts Over
by Linda Holmes
As National Public Radio’s pop-culture critic and an avowed fan of big-screen romantic comedies, Linda Holmes has been called upon more than once to defend the genre. In one instance, in 2013, she smartly admonished the haters to, “stop saying ‘chick flick’ like it’s ‘pile of rotten meat,’ and stop saying ‘chick lit’ and ‘chick book’ and ‘chick movie’ and anything else that suggests that love stories are less than war stories, or that stories that end with kissing are inherently inferior to stories that end with people getting shot.”
It’s in that affirmational spirit that one might comfortably label Holmes’s debut novel, Evvie Drake Starts Over, a beach read. It’s a lighthearted romance — not that there’s anything wrong with that — with a few moments of gravity. Without spoiling the ending, there is kissing. And the book hews broadly to classic rom-com conventions: a meet-cute between two likeable, somewhat deficient protagonists; lots of witty dialogue ratcheting up the will-they-or-won’t-they tension; quirky foils for the would-be lovebirds; a romantic-if-idiosyncratic setting.
That setting is the made-up midcoast town of Calcasset, a none-too-veiled stand-in for Rockland. Evvie is a 30-something Calcasset native and recent widow who hasn’t come to terms with the emotionally abusive nature of her interrupted marriage. Her reboot starts after she takes in a tenant, disgraced Major League pitcher Dean, who’s laying low in Maine after a headline-making slump. The two chat like Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, flirt like Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, and ultimately help each other face their demons, with assists from Evvie’s high-school bestie and salty lobsterman dad.
Maine, Holmes suggests, is a fine place for demon-facing, on account of our tight-knit communities and coastal landscapes inviting pensive contemplation. And, well, she isn’t wrong. We just hope they shoot the movie here. — Brian Kevin
The Long Flight Home
by Alan Hlad
After his parents are killed in a car accident on a brilliantly sunny day in September 1940, York County farmer and crop duster Ollie Evans learns just how close to the bone they’d been living: they were deep in debt, and the bank wastes no time foreclosing on their Buxton farm. With nothing to keep him home, Ollie boards a ship for England to volunteer for the Royal Air Force, which is fighting to reclaim control of the skies from Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe.
Thus, the state of Maine is left behind in Alan Hlad’s tale of heroism and romance, but its spirit — stoic, modest, independent — is well represented in Ollie. He ends up working for the National Pigeon Service, dropping homing pigeons into German-occupied France as a way for the French Resistance to send messages about troop movements to the British Services. And he falls in love with Susan Shepherd, a National Pigeon Service volunteer with a special fondness for a pigeon named Duchess that she raised from a hatchling. Their love story is on the saccharine side, but their mission, based on true events, is fascinating.
With its accounts of Luftwaffe raids on Britain and the unusual operation called Source Columba, which employed 16,000 pigeons in intelligence gathering, The Long Flight Home is a fresh avenue into a curious piece of World War II history. — Virginia M. Wright
Roughhouse Friday: A Memoir
by Jaed Coffin
In Jaed Coffin’s chronicle of a post-college hitch as a middleweight barroom boxer in Alaska, Maine is the place he is escaping. Or rather, it represents things from which he is seeking escape: the confusion and vulnerability of his adolescence, the tension that characterizes his relationships with his divorced parents, the banal upward mobility that would seem to be the spoils of his elite private-school education. Watching his peers stride confidently into adulthood fills him with loathing, which he first tries to quell without leaving his home state. “My resulting condition was a kind of numb and cynical paralysis,” he writes, “for which staring across the Gulf of Maine from the stern of a fishing boat from dawn to dusk seemed the only salve.” When that’s not salve-y enough, he makes for the Pacific Northwest and then, via kayak, for Alaska’s Inside Passage.
There, he falls in with a ragtag group of weekend brawlers and strikes up a friendship with his trainer, a Tlingit electrician and onetime powerhouse in southeast Alaska’s amateur boxing circuit. As Coffin rises in that circuit’s ranks, boxing offers a kind of prism through which to examine his angsts, about the fine line between independence and loneliness, what it means to be a man, and the explicit and implicit lessons offered him on these points by his white father and the Thai-American mother who raised him in Maine in his father’s absence.
Coffin (who is a regular Down East contributor) writes about masculinity with tenderness, about violence with grace, and about identity with a focus on what’s universal. Roughhouse Fridays is ostensibly about boxing but actually about pinning down one’s place in the world, and it’ll resonate with anybody who’s ever taken a good hard swing at that. — Brian Kevin
The Guest Book
by Sarah Blake
“Here.” In her dying days, Joan Milton asked to be buried on the Milton family’s island in Maine — not in the graveyard, but on the picnic grounds by the bay, her headstone inscribed with that single word: “Here.” Joan’s daughter, Evie, doesn’t know what it means. Her mother had been a cipher. Something had happened to her, Evie suspects, something that changed her from the vibrant young woman seen in family photos to a woman “smudged,” her light all but extinguished — a woman for whom silence was “her weapon and her shield.”
Silence — stoicism in the wake of personal tragedy, good manners papering over social injustices — infects three generations of Miltons in Sarah Blake’s richly layered novel, The Guest Book. As Blake threads her narrative back and forth through time, from Evie in the 1990s, to her grandparents, Ogden and Kitty, in the late 1930s, to Joan in the 1950s, we’re reminded that secrets don’t erase truths. And hidden truths have eroded the foundation on which rests the blue-blooded Milton clan’s legacy of leadership, honor, and wealth.
There’s one place, though, where the decay is quite visible: the Big House on fictional Crockett’s Island, in Penobscot Bay. In Evie’s grandparents’ day, the summer retreat was the proud face of the Miltons, captains of American industry, to all who sailed past. But for Evie and her cousins, it’s a deteriorating money pit and a source of friction.
Blake has delivered a beautifully written saga of one family’s entanglements with racism, power, and the insidiousness of complacency — a story, in other words, about the forces that shaped 20th-century America. — Virginia M. Wright