11 Great Seaside Novels
Books for Literary Beach Bums and City-Bound Daydreamers
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American culture has embraced certain summer behaviors. Post Memorial Day, we eat ice cream, grill outdoors, watch fireworks, and read vacuous and/or suspenseful books at the beach. Beach reads are meant to be easy reading. They’re mysteries, family vacation dramas, and tales of single gals looking for love and success in the big City. (In winter, many beach reads are more derisively called chick-lit.) The idea that we all want to flop on the beach and read the literary equivalent of reality TV stems from a history of inexpensive popular literature (see: the rise of cheap post-WWII paperbacks) and has been exacerbated by our unhealthy desire to label certain actions as “guilty pleasures.” At the beach, Amazon suggests with its list of flashy covers, you’re allowed to read the books you secretly want to read all year.
What about those of us who believe that lying prostrate on a beach towel is the perfect time to engage our minds? Is there a literary beach read?
Well, there are literary books that embrace at least one of the most common qualities of a beach read: they take place at the beach. (In fact, if your book takes place at the beach and is labeled as any genre other than literary fiction, you’re pretty much headed straight to the beach reads table.)
Flaubert’s Madam Bovary nailed the appeal of the beach for a tired mind when she said, “Doesn’t it seem to you that the mind moves more freely in the presence of that boundless expanse, that the sight of it elevates the soul and gives rise to thoughts of the infinite and the ideal?” The ocean, in literature or in life, is mind-expanding, relaxing, and meditative.
Here then is a list that aims to transport and engage: 11 works of literary fiction that take place, in some integral part, at the beach.
1. The Sea
by John Banville
Max Morden retreats to Ballyless, a fictional town on the Irish coast, after his wife Anna dies from cancer. Max doesn’t choose this spot randomly; he spent his childhood vacations in Ballyless and the place, imbued with history and nostalgia, becomes the catalyst for our deep dive into Max’s pensive state of mind. John Banville might be physically incapable of writing the type of sentences necessary for a “beach read” —even his mysteries under the pseudonym Benjamin Black are densely worded — but it would be hard to find a beach with a stronger pull. Ballyless mirrors Max’s state of mind: it’s dark and moody, with raging tides and rocky cliffs. So while Banville’s Booker Prize-winning novel is not a classic “beautiful beach,” it will make whatever beach you’re on more appealing.
2. The Blackwater Lightship
by Colm Tóibín
This quiet yet potent novel is set in Tóibín’s childhood home of County Wexford, Ireland. The book centers on a woman named Helen after she learns that her brother Declan is gay — still a taboo and a mostly unwelcome prospect in 1990s Ireland —and dying from AIDS. Declan asks her to break the news to their mother, with whom Helen is estranged, so Helen and Declan retreat to their grandmother’s house with the task. The wild coast near the house is a force to be reckoned with: when the group goes for a swim, it’s a dare-you-to-go-past-your-knees hopscotch through the freezing surf, and you commend them for their bravery, in this small act and others.
3. Sag Harbor
by Colson Whitehead
This coming of age story of 15-year-old Benji is both familiar (he’s concerned with music, girls, clothes) and unique; it’s 1985 and Benji’s family is part of a small, moneyed set of African Americans who own beach houses in the exclusive Hamptons enclave of Sag Harbor. The novel works on both levels, melding the Dandelion Wine-like meanderings of a teenager in summer with the ramifications of being a black boy in a white man’s territory.
4. High Dive
by Jonathan Lee
High Dive introduces us to Brighton, but not from the point of view of the pale sunbathers who dot the boardwalk and beaches. Instead we get an insider’s look at the industry which caters to the vacationers, and specifically the staff of the the Grand Hotel in the run-up to the 1984 Conservative Party Conference. High Dive is written around a historical event and the novel’s tension comes from already knowing the ending — a member of the Irish Republican Army planted a bomb that killed two men and three women, though missed its target, PM Margaret Thatcher — but much of its allure comes from spending time with the staff of the hotel.
5. The Stranger
by Albert Camus
Even if you haven’t read this novel since high school, you probably remember the beach scene. A quick recap: Meursault, the protagonist, is walking on the beach after a confrontation between himself, his friend Raymond, and the character known as the Arab. Under the piercing North African sun, Meursault becomes hot to the point of being deranged. Though Meursault deescalated an episode of violence earlier in the day, when he encounters the Arab again, he shoots him. And shoots. The reason for Meursault’s overreaction (racism? nihilism? sunstroke?) is something to be meditated on at the end of the book, but in the meantime, Camus’ depiction of heat will make you squirm. Maybe best to bring this one to the pool.
6. The Woman in the Dunes
by Kobo Abe
If you’re dedicated to the idea of sand as that pleasant, pillowly pile of grains that you sit on while you watch the ocean, you might not want to read this existential novel from Kobo Abe. The Woman in the Dunes is the fable-like story of a school teacher named Jumpei Niki who visits a fishing village to collect insects. When he misses his bus home, the villagers offer him a house in the dunes to stay the night. In the morning, the man discovers that the villagers have taken away the rope ladder which was the only means of leaving the house, and now he’s trapped there alongside a young woman. Together they must shovel out the encroaching sand in a Sisyphusian task that the villagers won’t let them escape.
7. The Veins of the Ocean
by Patricia Engel
This novel doesn’t take place on one beach, but many, landing in Havana, Miami, Cartagena, and the Florida Keys. Like a good beach read, Engel’s language is rich, evocative, and easily transports you to another place. But beautiful settings don’t protect against violence — look at Marquez’s short story “The Most Handsome Drowned Man in the World” — and here the beauty of Reina Castillo’s surroundings heightens the brutality of the men around her.
8. The Sea, The Sea
by Iris Murdoch
If you read enough books you start to believe that Britain’s shores aren’t just lined with seashells but with nostalgic, misanthropic old men. The Sea, The Sea is no exception. In Murdoch’s novel, Charles Arrowby, a successful and egotistical director-playwrite, leaves London to seclude himself away in a house by the sea and mull over his life, love, and career.
9. Death in Venice
by Thomas Mann
Mann’s novella takes place on the beaches of Lido, one of the many islands in the Venetian lagoon. Gustav von Eschenbach, a well-regarded German writer, goes to Lido for a holiday and quickly falls into the trap that literature has set for successful older men at the beach: he becomes pensive, sour, and nostalgic for his youth. Eschenbach’s problems manifest after he sees a strikingly beautiful young boy at at his hotel. The narrator’s infatuation with the boy grows into obsession as a cholera epidemic rages through the city.
10. On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan
In other hands, McEwan’s novel could have been a true beach read. Consider the setup: it’s July 1962, and Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting are spending their honeymoon in a small hotel right on the Dorset coast. What follows could be a work of romantic historical fiction or even a book with a Harlequin twist (Florence shuns Edward for the hunky bell boy, shirts are ripped.) Instead McEwan plumbs the dark depths of a new marriage between two people who are not on the same page emotionally, socioeconomically, or sexually.
11. Claire of the Sea Light
by Edwidge Danticat
Claire of the Sea Light takes place in the fictional seaside town of Ville Rose, Haiti. The novel is woven from the interconnected tales of the town’s residents after Claire, a young girl, disappears. Each character offers a new glimpse into the town’s troubles with class, corruption, and violence.