The clothes were packed and the sunscreen accounted for. Google Maps had been consulted as to the best route and the kids were giddy with anticipation for the eight-hour drive. And then the hard decision had to be made: What will I take to read at the beach?
Like George Costanza who said, “I happen do dress based on mood,” I can never be sure what I’ll want to read next. Because it’s always about “next,” isn’t it? I’m reading this novel now, and enjoying it, but what will I read next? Sitting on the beach, slathered in SPF 70 and sand, I wouldn’t have the luxury of my home’s bookcases close at hand. No, I had to make the decision while standing in my library 500 miles from the Gulf Coast.
But how do we decide what to give our precious downtime over to? Murder mystery? Classic? Chick Lit? It doesn’t really matter because all we crave is to get away from our day-to-day responsibilities, it’s why we’re on vacation. But do we forget our anxiety and cares by jumping into another world of anxiety and cares? It seems that I do. As I sat on Dune Allen Beach in Florida’s South Walton County and flipped eagerly through page after page of Chris Cleave’s fabulous Everyone Brave is Forgiven (Simon & Schuster), I couldn’t help thinking there was something familiar about the whole scene. Same sand as last year’s vacation . . . same strength of sunscreen . . . same kids screaming for my attention . . . same swimsuit (sadly) . . . Oh, right, last summer I was reading All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner) by Anthony Doerr. That novel covers World War II in France, while my current beach read takes place in London during the German blitzkrieg. Then it occurred to me that the year before that, I read The Invisible Bridge (Random House), Julie Orringer's story of Hungarian Jews during the same war.
Why would I do this? Why immerse myself in the misery and pain of fictional characters as I sip a cocktail and inch back into the shade of an umbrella? My greatest worry during my vacation was the way the ice melted and watered down my beverage. Meanwhile, Mary ducked into a bomb shelter with her students as yet another air raid siren squealed all around them.
Escapism. That’s it. We need time away from our lives and that’s what novels have always promised us. Sure, they may take us down the rabbit hole of war or heartbreak or dead-end jobs, but that’s not our war or heartbreak or dead-end job. And we’re okay with that.
Cleave does a masterful job at placing us in a certain place at a certain time so that we are able anticipate things we’ve never experienced. As Mary awaited the bombers over London, and as Alastair dreaded the sound of engines roaring over the island of Malta, I lounged with only the soothing sound of waves tippling on the beach nearby. But when a plane from nearby Tyndall Air Force Base ripped through the blue skies, I almost jumped out of my squatty little beach chair. Reading isn’t always the relaxing pursuit it should be.
I also read (or at least began, the cocktails seemed to get stronger as the week progressed) The Bourne Identity (Orion) by Robert Ludlum. I’m a fan of the Bourne movies and have always wanted to at least read the seminal novel to see if it holds up, and with the latest installment of the film series due out next month, it seemed like the perfect time. This is a case of the movie being better than the book, I’m afraid. The problem, for me, is that we’re let into the mind of Bourne on the page while I prefer the spontaneous actions onscreen without the inner dialogue.
But, again, I was on the beach, escaping, so even a less enjoyable book — or the promise of an air raid siren — makes for a good day.