Women take center stage in these juicy beach reads about the strayed bonds of friendship
Friendship triangles can be far deeper than love triangles, Texas novelists Amanda Eyre Ward and May Cobb show us in their newest novels.
Ward, whose New York Times-bestselling The Jetsetters was a Reese’s Book Club selection, and Cobb, whose The Hunting Wives was a 2021 Book of the Month pick, both know their way around a twisty novel with multiple points of view. And their new books both spotlight mothers who roller-coaster their way through tragedy, illuminating how women’s friendships shift, evolve and fracture.
Ward sets The Lifeguards in her adopted hometown of Austin, and right away there’s trouble on the horizon. Liza, Annette and Whitney are enjoying a wine-soaked night as their teen boys skitter off on bikes down the greenbelt that snakes through the park at the center of town. They return, breathless, with news: There’s a woman’s body down there.
“What choice did we have?” Liza thinks. “We promised we believed them.”
The lifeguards have their own secrets, but so do Liza, Annette and Whitney, who met when they were pregnant with their 15-year-olds. Liza’s hiding the truth about her son’s father. Whitney’s worried about how the news will affect her real estate business and, increasingly, about her daughter’s propensity for cruelty. Annette is privately annoyed with her nouveau riche husband’s insistence on throwing an over-the-top bash to celebrate her recently acquired citizenship, but pragmatic enough to stuff down those thoughts.
In chapters that alternate between the three women’s points of view as well as a police detective assigned to the murder, Ward excavates their feelings about each other, their families and motherhood itself. Her novel’s soul is in these emotions, full of complexity. She lets her characters be petty and anxious–towards themselves as well as others–in addition to the fierce protectors that the novel’s title implies.
Tragedy begets more tragedy, but Ward leaves her readers with indelible portraits of these women and the lengths they’ll go to in order to maintain what they believe is theirs.
The lengths women will go to also command center stage in Cobb’s My Summer Darlings, an undeniably steamy romp of a thriller.
Cobb’s three women live in small-town East Texas. There’s newly divorced Jen, arty Cynthia and flirty Kittie. They too share a bond fortified by boozy nights, and they’ve got plenty to dish about once hot, vaguely European stranger Will moves there.
In lesser hands this setup would be a run-of-the-mill beach read, anchored in the knowledge from early on that Will is bad news. But Cobb has far more to parse, including the women’s collective capacity for self-denial and their dissatisfaction with the safety of married life. All three talk themselves out of their doubts about Will, and two betray their friendship mightily.
Kittie and Cynthia nimbly shift alliances to serve their own desires, and mostly have fun doing it, though Cobb also reveals the insecurities that drive their behavior. As in The Hunting Wives, the women of My Summer Darlings embrace their urges instead of suppressing them, letting boredom and hormones fuel some mighty poor decisions.
It’s fascinating to see how Cobb maps all their journeys with care, as the links between them strain. Her women may be hot messes, but they’re never one-dimensional. And she’s as interested in their relationships with their teen children as she is with their connections with other adults.
Yes, there are men in these novels — detective Salvatore has some fine moments in The Lifeguards — but the stars here are the women, in all their chaotic glory. Both books plumb the choices we make or sometimes fantasize about, with the devastating consequences safely on the page.
The Lifeguards, Penguin Random House, April 5, 2022
My Summer Darlings, Penguin Random House, May 17, 2022