Review: Cape May, by Chip Cheek
Celadon, 2019. 243 pp. $27
In 1957, Henry and Effie, married straight out of a small-town Georgia high school, honeymoon in Cape May, New Jersey. Borrowing a cousin’s cottage, they arrive at the end of September to find the town deserted — naturally, because it’s a place where the well-to-do summer, and now they’re gone. That’s only the first fact to surprise the innocent, unsophisticated newlyweds, and Effie’s instinct is to go home after a couple days. But Henry, unsure of her, though they’ve known each other for years — he can’t quite believe that the mayor’s daughter chose him — takes her notion to mean that she doesn’t want his company. That insecurity leads to much trouble and the discovery that the Jersey shore is much farther from rural Georgia than the mere distance indicates.
A group of city sophisticates welcomes them next door to a nonstop party, though absorb would be a fitter word. Max, a sometime writer, heir to a shipping fortune, and a lewd drunk, drives the festivities with his lover, Clara, who was in show business at one time. Alma, Max’s sullen, gorgeous half-sister, acts as though she’d rather be anywhere else, but she draws Henry’s eye. At first, he’s more susceptible to this crowd’s invitations than his bride, attracted by the veneer of “civilization,” as he calls it, what these mildly degenerate Yankees represent to him. And in that fever, he loses his common sense and his moral compass, helped by a power outage after a storm (something of a cliché, there).
Cheek’s a terrific observer, especially of social interactions and sexual mores. What could have been a stagey, turgid domestic drama stewing in its own juices feels surprisingly open, fluid, and freewheeling. This requires a subtle touch, the ability to evoke movement even when people are sitting still, and simmering tension below the surface, at all of which Cheek excels. Throughout, there’s a sexual charge, like a humid summer day before a thunderstorm. All of these elements derive from the prose, which does its work simply, never calling attention to itself, yet conveys the mood in vivid, active images:
Through the big windowpanes, now that the inside was brighter than the outside, Henry could see more people gathering in the den, big groups of them, laughing, sipping from martini glasses, smoking cigarettes. He saw the beatnik in the slip take her shoes off and hand them to a man who placed them into a potted plant. He saw a naked toddler run screaming from the archway. He saw an Oriental woman with a complicated bun and a silvery eye shadow. He saw a man with circular sunglasses and a shaved head under a beret.… For the past week he’d felt isolated from the world, and now the world was upon him, or some strange version of it.
For all that, though, Cape May falls short of memorable. I understand Henry, somewhat, but Effie hardly at all, and the sophisticates even less. They seem too brittle to feel anything, rushing from experience to experience to prevent what they most fear, boredom. I would have wanted flashes of depth, glimmers of what they’re trying not to face; though, since the newlyweds provide the only perspectives as naïve observers, that’s difficult to achieve. Cheek seems to be saying that the Georgians’ innocence is also a veneer, that they share their new friends’ desires, and we’re all the same underneath, city mouse or country mouse.
That’s fine, but absent fuller characterizations or any particular connection to time and place — if it weren’t for clothing styles or brief mentions of current events, I would never have known it was the late Fifties — we’re left with what sex means, or what it means to Henry, Effie, and the reader. And as for sex, there’s plenty of it, licit and otherwise. Cheek does well to make the scenes matter-of-fact and realistic — no breathless, inflated bodice-ripper descriptions — though I do wonder how these people manage to get it on after half a dozen gins-and-tonic.
Cheek’s a fine writer whose subject matter and theme remind me of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, also about newlyweds clueless about marriage. But the people in Cape May seem more a collection of attitudes than complex humans, and their plight therefore less than powerful.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in shorter, different form.