Jennifer Weiner on Why 'Beach Reads' Matter Now More Than Ever

Posted by Cybil on April 30, 2020
Jennifer Weiner is the author of many bestsellers, including Good in BedIn Her Shoes, and Mrs. Everything. She's also a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times Op-Ed and Sunday Review. Weiner's back to the bookshelves this spring with Big Summer, a book ready to whisk you away (at least mentally) to a sunny beach. In honor of the new novel, and in preparation for our summer reading wish lists, Weiner comes to the defense of one of our favorite pastimes: enjoying a good beach read.

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When I was a kid, my parents and my three younger siblings and I would spend a week in a rented cottage on the Outer Cape. Now that I am a parent myself, I can appreciate that it wasn’t so much a vacation as a relocation. The cottage colony had a laundry room, and our cottage had a kitchen, so my mom was stuck cooking and doing the laundry for four kids. At least we were right on the bay, with its pleasant breezes and the soothing sound of the waves. Every afternoon, we’d make a pilgrimage to one of the ocean beaches to dip into the frigid water and sun on the sand. 

We’d deflate the tires of our Chevrolet Suburban and drive out through the dunes. When we’d found the perfect spot, my father would somehow contrive to remove the back seat, wrestle it out of the car, and set it up on the sand. And there he would sit, working his way through six months of piled-up New Yorkers and New England Journals of Medicine. I would sit beside him, my sweaty thighs sticking to the vinyl seat cover, with my own, smaller stack of New Yorkers (I didn’t even bother with the medical stuff), trying to read the articles and the short stories, hoping to discern some shred of meaning that I could spin into some clever observation that would display my intelligence and my wit.

It was unpleasant and difficult and glare-y. There was sand in places that sand did not belong. The entire experience was fraught with anxiety, with fear of failure, the terror that I would accidentally say the wrong thing and reveal that I had no idea what John Cheever or John Updike was writing about. It left me feeling sweaty, with my stomach in knots and a headache throbbing in my temples. Plus, I had to do it all in a bathing suit, which didn’t help.

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I understand that when most people say “beach reading,” they are talking about something else. A beach read is a book that is fast-moving and diverting and sexy and fun, a book that perhaps prioritizes plot and characterization over beautiful sentences or time-honored themes. In other words, it’s the stuff that I wish I’d been reading instead of the stuff that I was desperately trying to read. But when I became a writer, you can, perhaps, imagine my dismay at seeing my own work called beach books. There are themes! I imagined myself moaning to my critics and frequently would moan to my husband and friends. There’s serious stuff! There’s family dysfunction, there’s sibling rivalry and body issues, there’s class and gender and religion!

It wouldn’t have mattered. Between the titles, the covers, and the admittedly breezy tone, my books were, and are, beach books. And I’ve learned to be OK with it. I have also learned to interrogate my own disdain for the label, to ask myself why it was so hurtful when someone would call my books fluff.

Some of it is sexism. It’s not hard to discern a whiff of Coppertone-scented sexism in the label. Fast-paced, diverting books that are by or for men are called thrillers or mysteries or sometimes just plain old books, while the ladies get every kind of label, from chick lit to women’s fiction to upmarket women’s fiction to domestic fiction to, well, beach books. Some of it, I’m afraid, is due to the part of me that’s still longing for my father’s praise and still imagining his scorn at a book called Good in Bed, or of one with a cover depicting two women strolling on the sand, one of them with her hand positioned in such a way that it looks like she’s trying to remove part of her gauzy white sundress from her butt crack (lookin’ at you, Best Friends Forever). Some of it is what I’ve absorbed from our puritanical, capitalist, up-from-your-bootstraps society, where all pleasure is somehow suspect, where leisure time is meant to be devoted to self-improvement, and that books are meant to be salubrious and important and improving. A book should give you something, this worldview instructs, and just enjoyment isn’t enough.

To that I say, bullsh-t. Especially now. Pleasure is something. Pleasure matters. Pleasure is more than enough. And the idea that a book is just entertaining, that it’s merely escapism, that it’s easy reading or a page-turner or a romp, the idea that any of that is pejorative, at this moment in time seems crazy. If ever there was a time for the unapologetic embrace of books that “just” bring us pleasure, that time, she is now.

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And so, a taxonomy of beach books!

There are beach books set at the beach, usually in upscale communities in Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard or the Outer Banks, that follow the romantic or familial travails of a relatable, familiar-feeling heroine. Elin Hilderbrand is the reigning queen of the on-the-beach beach book, with the late, great Dorothea Benton Frank forever reigning in our hearts. This year, there’s a beach book called Beach Read, by Emily Henry, about two authors living in a beach community—he’s a highbrow literary author, she writes romance, both of them are blocked, and so they swap.

There are books that are fast-moving and fun, populated by rich people. (Bonus points if they’re set in NYC, with lots of drool-worthy details about fashion, real estate, and home decor.) Think The Nanny Diaries, think Candace Bushnell, Lauren Weisberger, Rebecca Serle.

There are books about friendship, where the characters feel as familiar as your own BFFs, where you’re invested in their stories and hanging on every twist and turn until they get to a happy ending. Terry McMillan’s books hit the sweet spot: There’s Waiting to Exhale for the OGs, but if you haven’t read her lately, I Almost Forgot About You, about an optometrist named Georgia Young who’s accumulated everything the world has told her to want and decides to make some big changes, is a great place to start.

There are chilling beach books, where the experience of flying through the pages is akin to feeling an ice cube slide down your neck: Zoë Heller’s unreliably narrated Notes on a Scandal or Maile Meloy’s vacation-gone-wrong Do Not Become Alarmed (if the current situation has not put you off cruises permanently, that book will).  

A romance is always the perfect thing to read in the summer sun. Eloisa James is my go-toWhen Beauty Tamed the Beast is a chef’s-kiss-perfect combination of a crotchety doctor and the woman who wins his heart and turns out to have brains as well as good looks. And if you’re looking for a book that combines set-on-the-beach scenes, rich New Yorker lifestyle porn, mystery, romance, and friendship, allow me to recommend my own Big Summer. After spending years researching and writing my historical novel, Mrs. Everything, I was burnt out, exhausted, and ready for some fun. “I want to write a book that takes place in a weekend on the Cape, where a fat girl gets a happy ending!” I told my husband. The book turned out to be much more than that—my protagonist is an Instagram influencer, so I thought and wrote a lot about the ways the internet has changed the way we live and present and feel about ourselves. But overall, the book is pure escapist fun, with the push-pull of a friendship drama, a dollop of the-rich-are-different, a romance, a mystery, and some smoking-hot sex scenes. And yes, the fat girl gets a happy ending.

The important thing to remember is that any book that you read on the beach is, by definition, a beach book. You can plow your way through that difficult Russian classic you never got around to in graduate school, or you can go for escape and entertainment, without apology. Beach books are a primal pleasure, and there should never be a reason to feel bad about feeling good.

 
What's your favorite beach read recommendation? Share it with your fellow readers in the comments!

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Comments Showing 1-27 of 27 (27 new)

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message 1: by Lillie (new)

Lillie brown I'd definitely recommend beach read, seems amazing. will also be reading big summer!!


message 2: by Morgan (new)

Morgan Adding Big Summer to my TBR now. When Beauty Tamed the Beast is also my favorite from Eloisa!


message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

Without books, I will never make it through the hot summer. It's so much fun reading in the summer. Going to a beach resort makes the books more fun.


message 4: by Linda (new)

Linda Bargas THANK YOU. I’ve been reading blocked on my current read because it’s just not what I WANT to read right now. I’ve read less during shelter-in-place than I have read in YEARS, largely because I’m trying to finish a book I don’t really like or want to read. OK. Putting it away and starting a different book... tonight... after my work-at-home-day (week, month, forever).


message 5: by Whitney (new)

Whitney Zatzkin This is lovely, especially given so many of us will be gathering around some imaginary beaches this Summer and really just need a whole library of pick-me-up adventures to remind us of the strength (or chutzpah?) we have with us always. <3

Cannot wait for Big Summer!


message 6: by Karen (new)

Karen Kraeger Linda wrote: "THANK YOU. I’ve been reading blocked on my current read because it’s just not what I WANT to read right now. I’ve read less during shelter-in-place than I have read in YEARS, largely because I’m tr..."
LInda-Good for you! There are SO many wonderful books in the world. Life is too short to read books we don't like. Enjoy your new book! Have fun!
Bloom wrote: "Without books, I will never make it through the hot summer. It's so much fun reading in the summer. Going to a beach resort makes the books more fun."


message 7: by Kristy (new)

Kristy Berg Thank you I need to read this! I love to read for escape and enjoyment right now. Stay save and read a book!


message 8: by Katherine (new)

Katherine Hayward Pérez I've added everything but The Nanny Diaries to my TBR because I have read that. Looking forward to the rest!


message 9: by Mary Beth (new)

Mary Beth Jennifer Weiner always “tells it like it is” and I agree with her wholeheartedly! I read books set at the beach because I’m not fortunate enough to be near a beach. How I enjoy many books that are fun, page-turners. But all books take me to places that I haven’t been, in shoes I’ve never worn, in jobs and industries I know nothing about, in families I’ve never known but with struggles and life arcs that are oh so familiar!! Books bring imagination to life, are thought provoking and are usually timely. She names so many of my favorite authors - Elin Hilderbrand, Dorothea Benton Frank (RIP!), Terry McMillan and Candace Bushnell along with Jennifer Weiner! I would also add Emily Giffin, Sophie Kinsella, Adriana Trigiani, Sarah Pekkanen and Paullina Simons to this list!!

- Mary Beth Hubbard


message 10: by Katsuro (new)

Katsuro Here's my theory: "beach read" is used insultingly because people don't go to the beach only to read.

Often, you read a bit, then turn and talk to the person next to you, then read a bit, then eat or drink something, then read a bit, then go for a swim... And so on.

In other words, "beach read" can be taken to mean "a book that's interesting, but not so good that it deserves all your attention."
Or "a book that you're happy to pick up, but don't mind putting down for a bit."

At least that's what I think people mean when they use the term in a disparaging way.


message 11: by Melody (new)

Melody Kemble It's great you've accepted the beach read label. I've started my own subcategory of books labeled beach reads. Goodreads allows Read, Want to Read and Currently Reading but I like to remind myself why I want to read the book so I place it in the subcategories I've made up. My list includes many of those already mentioned. 😊


message 12: by Robin (new)

Robin I’m looking forward to Big Summer! Why people think escapism is okay for movies but not for books mystifies me. Except that I notice that most literature snobs read about 12 books a year and and the people I know who read everything read lots more.


Psychowellnesscenter I hate Covid-19. When will we be back to the beaches. I am already listing down my fav books for the beach read. I always like to have a hard copy instead of the new age Kindles. I love the smell of beach and books.


message 14: by Dee (last edited May 02, 2020 03:12PM) (new)

Dee Martin I've been trying genres & authors new to me, including Elin Hilderbrand (tho her Paradise trilogy may differ from her previous books). For titles that may not be considered typical of "Beach book" category, but are still enjoyable, see my "Islands" bookshelf of 22 titles--23 if counting Mara, daughter of the Nile.

List has wide range for various tastes, from more spicy to mild, gentle reads like "Miracles of Marble Cove". Since families may be sharing books, suggestions for younger readers that can be enjoyed by adults are included as well.

Some (especially male) readers prefer non-fiction like Island of the Lost by Joan Druett, about real castaways that inspired Jules Verne novel Mysterious Island. Maybe watch Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, then read original book and discuss differences together in a family book club. (Did you know James Mason may have been cast as Captain Nemo because of his portrayal of another mysterious man in film--strictly for adults--"Pandora and the Flying Dutchman"? )

Mother's Day is coming up: Orphan Island and Wild Robot explore what is a family.

Moe the Dog in Tropical Paradise can inspire creation of your own "island escape" at home (see my review for ideas Think of ways you can feel you too are in Tropical Paradise: Touch terry beach towel/smell sunscreen; taste fruity drinks like pineapple, mango, coconut/listen to ocean waves, breeze rustling in palm trees).

Exercise your imagination--that's what books are made of!


message 15: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Love this post! I always grumbled about the term "beach read" because somehow it's only women's books that really get termed that, and a whole lot of romance gets lumped there. I love that you are taking back the term! If a novel being fast-paced and exciting is a bad thing, then I don't want to be right.


message 17: by Leslie (new)

Leslie Karst Thank you for this, Jennifer! Reminds me of when "pop" music was sneered at, and I'd always say, "but 'pop' comes from 'popular.' What's so bad about that?"

I'd also include cozy mysteries in the "beach reads" category, a subgenre that is similarly often sneered at--mostly because they're predominately written and read by women. Thank you for taking back the term! Vive le beach read!


message 18: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Byron I couldn't agree more and agree with Leslie's comment regarding cozy mysteries. I write two series and am proud to be considered a "beach read." In the Before Times, I even advertised myself as a "plane read" - I can get you across the country on one book. I'm endlessly frustrated with how quickly these genres are dismissed, and am on a personal mission to get them the respect they deserve.


message 19: by Abena (new)

Abena I would recommend Frances Mensah Williams book Imperfect Arrangements as a great beach book read. In fact, its a great read in bed or while sunbathing in the garden. And its a nice uplifting story about love and relationships linked to three women.


message 20: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Hedges Books and reading is something we can all enjoy at whatever level we want! I spent way too many years reading the classics and giant literary tomes because that is what I thought I should be reading. I was embarrassed to admit to some of my favorite authors because people would think less of my reading habit. Now I don't care! I read what I like and I am happy to tell people what I am reading. I read to escape and relax and I'm not going to do that reading literary, long winded, novels. My favorite beach read author is Fiona Walker. Her book French Relations is a reread for me and still has me giggling. Big Summer was a great read too!


message 21: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Kallenberger Marzola This essay and the comments are interesting to me. Never in my wildest dreams did I consider a "beach read" derogatory in any way. As a kid through college, beach reads were those books that I could read because I wanted to not because they were assigned reading.

As an adult, they are books that I can read, because my kids are at summer camp, or my husband spends time with the kids to give me a few hours of uninterrupted reading time. My beach reads span all genres and include male and female authors. I love to read and now that my kids are grown, I pick up "beach reads" year round.


message 22: by Leane (new)

Leane I love to read seasonally, or perhaps, right before the season starts. This time of year I'm picking up beach reads (LOVE Elin Hilderbrand!) and by August I'll be looking for a book with a New England setting of falling leaves and Halloween. As I'm planning my Thanksgiving menu I'll be adding some of Debbie Macomber's feel-good Christmas books to my TBR. And just as the new year rolls around my entertainment comes in the form of cozy mysteries.

Books are meant to bring you into a world and let you peruse, tell you a story, help you escape. If that means they are "beach reads" or "cozies" or whatever, I'm totally okay with that!


message 23: by [deleted user] (new)

I love your post. It brings the seasons close. I can't wait for fall, autumn.


message 24: by Amy (new)

Amy Holliday I cannot wait to read Beach Read. I also would like to read the other books you mentioned as well. Thank you !!!!


message 25: by Claudia (last edited Jul 30, 2020 06:30AM) (new)

Claudia I completely agree with the idea of this post, some of these books are like a cozy, genuine talk (in a safe environment) with a best friend -that some might actually not have.
It gives the feeling of normality:
- ''Oooh, so it's OK to think that way or feel that way.''
I'd rather see women reading as many books as such as possible, in stead of acting like bitter, vicious b*tches to each other.


message 26: by Mallory (new)

Mallory I've read this. It's wonderful! Ms. Weiner is such a gifted author! Other readers will enjoy this --


message 27: by Renee (new)

Renee The most unlikely thing I've ever read on the beach is James Joyce's _Ulysses_ -- and it was perfect. I'd never been able to get into it before but hearing the rise and fall of the surf was the perfect accompaniment to the novel's first chapter. It makes me wonder how many other books (other than Virginia Woolf's _The Waves_) would benefit similarly from being read beside the sea.


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