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Summer Darlings: Brooke Lea Foster Interview & Discussion Questions

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Summer Darlings is the hot new historical fiction novel sweeping readers away with its 1962 Martha's Vineyard glamour, drama, and suspense. Author Brooke Lea Foster and I connected on Instagram over our shared love of her book and Martha's Vineyard, and she agreed to answer some interview questions below.

It's a truly insightful read whether or not you have read the book -- no spoilers -- and also some pairings for what to read next. I have also provided a summary of Summer Darlings and discussion questions for book clubs.

Summary of Summer Darlings from the Publisher, Simon & Schuster

Set during the splendid summer days of 1960s Martha’s Vineyard, this page-turning debut novel pulls back the curtain on one mysterious and wealthy family as seen through the eyes of their nanny—a college student who, while falling in love on the elegant island, is also forced to reckon with the dark underbelly of privilege.

In 1962, coed Heddy Winsome leaves her hardscrabble Irish Brooklyn neighborhood behind and ferries to glamorous Martha’s Vineyard to nanny for one of the wealthiest families on the island. But as she grows enamored with the alluring and seemingly perfect young couple and chases after their two mischievous children, Heddy discovers that her academic scholarship at Wellesley has been revoked, putting her entire future at risk.

Determined to find her place in the couple's wealthy social circles, Heddy nurtures a romance with the hip surfer down the beach while wondering if the better man for her might be a quiet, studious college boy instead. But no one she meets on the summer island—socialite, starlet, or housekeeper—is as picture-perfect as they seem, and she quickly learns that the right last name and a house in a tony zip-code may guarantee privilege, but that rarely equals happiness.

Rich with the sights and sounds of midcentury Martha’s Vineyard, Brooke Lea Foster’s debut novel Summer Darlings promises entrance to a rarefied world, for readers who enjoyed Tigers in Red Weather or The Summer Wives.

Summer Darlings has even received the accolades of the queen of New England Summer beach reads, Elin Hilderbrand:

I was immediately seduced by Summer Darlings. Foster cleverly conceals her characters' deceits and betrayal beneath a stunning, sun-spangled surface, and Martha's Vineyard (my third favorite island) is portrayed with glamorous period detail.  This is one terrific summer read.

- Elin Hilderbrand, New York Times bestselling author of Summer of ’69

I personally would describe it as a mix of Beatriz Williams books with a hint of Elin Hilderbrand (specifically Summer of ’69)! If you liked Park Avenue Summer and/or Mad Men-era books dealing with class and coming of age, I think you would also enjoy this one.

Read my full review of Summer Darlings with book pairings.

Interview with Brooke Lea Foster, Author of Summer Darlings

Brooke Lea Foster is an award-winning journalist whose writing has been published in The New York TimesThe Washington Post MagazineThe AtlanticThe Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, and HuffPost. She is also the author of three non-fiction books and an alumna of The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College.  Summer Darlings is her debut novel. 

Brooke's answers to my questions below paint such a clear picture of the full cycle of this novel from conception to publication. And she provides so many extra fun tips and extras as well. I felt like I could talk to her for hours after reading her answers. So, I added in some replies to keep the conversation going even further:

Q: What books, movies, authors, life moments, etc. sparked the inspiration for Summer Darlings?

A: I’m a beach girl at heart so I always knew that if I wrote a novel, it would be set at the beach. The spark came when I was on vacation a few years ago on Martha’s Vineyard. I was flipping through a real estate magazine and saw an ad for a house you could rent called “the Swindle.” It was a beautiful (but modest) cedar-shingled house that rented for $14,000 a week thanks to its private location on Vineyard Sound. But back in the 1950s, it was a run-down fishing cottage nestled between two grand mansions. As the story goes, the owner of the fishing cottage “swindled” the wealthy women living in the manses on either side, forcing them to buy his cottage for an outrageous price.

I immediately started seeing a story: A mansion on one side of the fishing camp with an actress living in it, a Waspy family in a mansion on the other side -- and an eligible bachelor in between, perhaps a swindler of some kind. It would be the sparkly summer of 1962 set in one of my favorite islands. I figured writing it would get me through the winter since I could be at the beach every day, at least in my imagination. I wrote the first draft fast, in eight weeks, but then I spent three years revising the novel.

My Reply: I adore the story of “the Swindle” and immediately Google'd it! I'm so happy you shared this with us. This is exactly the type of little moment I love learning about as the inspiration behind a book.

Q: I've read a few books this year about the unique viewpoint of a nanny -- Summer Darlings, Such a Fun Age, and Friends and Strangers. Why did you choose this role for Heddy and do you think her experience may have been different or similar to the modern nanny?

A: I love a story about a character that’s a fish out of water, maybe because I often feel that way myself, and Heddy, my heroine, feels that way from the moment she steps off the ferry on Martha’s Vineyard.

I nannied once in the Hamptons back in the 1990s, and as I ate at the breakfast table with them or followed the kids to their mother’s side, I remembered thinking that I was witnessing the intimate inner workings of a family, of a marriage. It made me uncomfortable at times, but it also helped me see how other people lived, interacted, what their vulnerabilities were, how the persona they projected didn’t always match the one I saw in private.

I wanted Heddy to arrive on the island and be thrust into monied circles she didn’t fit into. The island, with its lobster rolls and windswept dunes, would be as foreign to her as its people were. But as she found her way, she’d discover that the island – the people she’d go on to meet – were not always who they seemed.

So she needed to be an outsider, and I love that nannies always feel like they’re on the outside looking in.  

My Reply: You are so right that it's both the perspective of an outsider and someone who gets an intimate look at the inner workings of a family. I hadn't truly thought of it that way.

Q: 1962 American glamour feels like a character itself in Summer Darlings. Why did you choose the 1962 time frame for this novel?

A: That time period is incredibly glamorous – I love the clothes, the hair, the fun cocktails and Jello rings and the smoking (even though I’ve never smoked in my life).

But I also picked 1962 because it’s the beginning of the end of those storied times. Six months after Heddy leaves the island, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is published, chronicling the unhappiness of housewives. Kennedy will be shot in November of the following year.

My book takes place before the world got more complicated, back when a bad day could be solved with a fabulous dress and a gin & tonic. That’s not entirely true, but my point is: The world felt more glamorous in the early sixties than it did by the tumultuous mid-sixties when civil rights protests picked up, and the late sixties, when the Vietnam War took hold.

My Reply: So poignant! In some ways, this feels like the pre-cursor to Elin Hilderbrand's Summer of ’69. Like they can be read in succession. I'm also now picturing 1960's pool vibes in my head!

Q: Martha's Vineyard is my favorite place, and I know you cherish it as well. Was this always where you envisioned your first novel to be set or did it fit the storyline after you created the plot?

A: There was never another place I planned to set it. The idea for the book came while I was on State Beach, a long eclipse of sand between Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, and I began to see the characters everywhere. They would ride by on their bikes. I heard their voices, maybe at the next table while at Port Hunter, or in the next aisle at Bunch of Grapes bookshop. Not really, of course, but I love that island, and the thought of setting a book there felt like a love letter to this place I’d spent so many summers daydreaming and reading and raising babies.

Around that same time, I rented a house from a local named Fran Flanders, whose family has been living in Chilmark for decades, and she told me fun stories of her younger years there, and I just knew: I had to go back in time and see this place I loved with 1960s eyes.

My Reply: You're making me want to write a book set in Martha's Vineyard with this imagery. And I may have to stash the name "Fran Flanders" in my back pocket -- it's the perfect name for a Vineyard local!

Q: Summer Darlings was blessed with one of the most gorgeous book covers of the year, and it's also rich with detail, like bountiful hydrangeas. Can you discuss the cover creation process?

A: I love the cover – but it didn’t always look the way it does now. My publisher may have circulated other covers in-house, but this is the only cover that I saw. The initial rendering had the woman in a black bathing suit, and she was stepping into a pool with rust-colored tiles. In the background, there was some tropical-looking foliage.

I raised a few points to my open-minded publisher: One, the book needed hydrangeas on the cover. Hydrangeas are everywhere on the Vineyard; they overspill from gardens and line walkways, shops have them growing out front. So we swapped in the flowers and then we fiddled with the color of the tiles in the pool so they were a prettier aquamarine. Then my publisher gave me a choice on what color bathing suit we wanted the woman to wear: Aubergine, royal blue, green, or red. As soon as I saw the red, I just knew it was the one. You can’t take your eyes off of it.

My Reply: Wow. As someone myself who intimately "knows" the Vineyard, like you, it seems the publisher didn't totally "get it" at first. I'm so glad you fought for the changes you did -- they are perfect, and it truly is an amazing cover.

Q: For all Martha's Vineyard lovers here (and those who hope to get there someday), what are your top travel recommendations on the island?

A: I love all of it, from the small organic markets with great take-out dinners to the bike ride out to Katama with a stop at the Airfield diner.

For book lovers, you have to go to Edgartown for coffee and breakfast at Behind the Bookstore Café, then head into Edgartown Books for a few beach reads.

The best shopping is Oak Bluffs, with its busy main drag.

My absolute favorite beach on the island is up-island in Aquinnah, where you walk a sandy dune trail to the beach with its majestic cliffs and endless stretch of sand.

I also love sunset at Menemsha, where everyone eats takeout lobster on the beach and applauds the setting sun.

Lastly, you must take the kids for a ride on Flying Horses Carousel, one of the oldest in the nation.

Ooh, and Rosewater in Edgartown has great home goods – and sandwiches to go. Oh, and the Farmer’s Market in Tisbury. Yes, and paddling in Quitsa Pond. It’s all wonderful.

I’ve stayed in every single town/area on the island over the years, and each one is beautiful and fun in its own right. These days I’m most fond of Chilmark; it’s very rural and serene and out there, a place where I can imagine up new novels.  

My Reply: I actually haven't been to some of those places yet, so I will check them out. As readers can see from my Martha's Vineyard travel guide, Aquinnah is my favorite view on earth, and I got engaged at the Menemsha sunset, so I highly recommend those as well. I tried to take your book to the Flying Horses carousel for a picture, but it was closed this year. It's such a special island -- I hope we have inspired some visits there!

Q: I love the idea of "life-changing books" - not necessarily your favorite books, but those that really impacted your life or changed your way of thinking or living in some way. What book(s) was life-changing for you?

A: I’ve been a writer since I came out of college, and I devour books. I read so many books that I often forget what they’re about later. This “life-changing book” may sound strange, but in my thirties, I read a biography of Maxwell Perkins, the famous editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and it was so interesting to hear how he edited some of those famous writers and the ups and downs of those same literary greats. They struggled as much as I was when it came to finding my voice as a writer.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History: I remember reading that book and thinking how smart it was. It was a coming of age story, like The Catcher in the Rye, but with an air of mystery and intrigue, a darkness. I loved that. Another book that changed me was The Time Traveler’s Wife. I remember reading that and thinking: I want to write something that will make people feel the same joy and pain, longing and heartbreak that I’m feeling right now.

My Reply: "Life-changing books" are always "strange," that's why I love the concept more than a "favorite books" question! It seems it's always something off the grid that somehow sticks in our brains and makes some sort of mental shift. By coincidence, I am currently reading The Secret History and totally agree -- dark, intriguing, mysterious. The dialogue also jumps out of the page and makes you feel a part of it, which I think, is a special art form. I also find it to be like The Catcher in the Rye in some ways -- similar mood.

Q: Just for fun: what five people or characters, living or dead, would you invite to a hypothetical book club dinner party?

A: I love this question whenever I see it in the book section of the New York Times. Hmm. I think this crew would make for a GREAT conversation about writing: Sally Rooney, Elin Hilderbrand, Celeste Ng, Virginia Woolf, and Elizabeth Gilbert. I’d want to talk about how these women write with so much heart, how they’ve learned to tell a good story, how they overcame self-doubt, and how they’ve learned to empower and inspire other women with their writing, all while balancing families and partners and the ups and downs of life.

My Reply: NAILED IT!! It's no secret that I'm an Elin Hilderbrand superfan and love how she mixes lightness with complexity with the perfect New England settings. Sally Rooney and Elizabeth Gilbert are such smart modern writers, and I am nothing short of humbled by Celeste Ng's ability to weave such heavy themes throughout her characters and storylines.

Q: I live for a great pairing. For those who have already read and loved Summer Darlings, what books, movie, tv, podcasts, music, etc., would you recommend they consume next?

A: Anything by Elin Hilderbrand, but I’m in love with her latest, 28 Summers. Karen Dukess’s The Last Book Party, which was one of my favorite books of last year; it’s set on Cape Cod. As for TV, obviously, Mad Men, also The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselNormal People by Sally Rooney, just because it’s so damn good, and also a coming of age story, albeit a much more sexual one. When you’re finished, then watch the HULU series. As for music, I wrote Summer Darlings to Niall Horan’s This Town (particularly the party scene where she approaches Ash) and Rachel Platten’s Fight Song (particularly when she tells off her boss), so either one would provide insight into how I see the characters.

My Reply: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel! why didn't I think of that?! PERFECT. And I added The Last Book Party to my list. Although  Normal People can be a very divisive story that people either love or hate, I am with you -- I'm a huge fan of both the book and the HULU series.

Q: You and I first interacted over Instagram. It's still such a unique feeling for me to discuss books I have read directly with authors in our modern, very socially connected time. I imagine it can have pros and cons as an author. Can you discuss your experience with social media as an author?

A: It’s been incredible. I love interacting directly with passionate readers, but I think that’s because I’m a passionate reader, too. I love reaching out to authors I’ve read on Instagram and telling them I loved their book, so I get so happy when someone reaches out to me. Bookstagrammers, like yourself, are even more fun, because they take your book, which you’ve worked tirelessly on for YEARS, and then pose it in these artful ways, which makes you feel special. I can’t imagine the book going out in the world and never hearing from anyone who reads it. Those must have been sad times, waiting for the odd letter here and there.

Still, there are cons. I’ve had a few meanies read my novel, hate it, give it a shredding, and then tag me in their post – that really hurt and just feels unnecessary. Sometimes I think people forget that authors are real people, not just a hashtag. People can hate the book, but you don’t have to tag me in your post. 

My Reply: I appreciate all your sentiments here, and I know readers will too. This is something I always wanted to ask an author but never had the courage to ask before.

Q: What's next for you? And (*fingers crossed*) what are the chances we will someday get another book set in Martha's Vineyard??

A: My second novel is set in East Hampton and Southampton in the summer of 1957, and boy is it fun – get ready to hang out with the Hamptons bohemia set.

But I’m outlining my third book now, and I’m trying to decide where to set it. My heart keeps pulling me back to the Vineyard. Hopefully, with my next book, you and I can meet for a glass of wine on Vineyard Sound and cheer our love of the island.

My Reply: I'm so excited for both books, and I am officially adding happy hour in the Vineyard to my literary bucket list! I think that's the perfect note for us to end on. I can't thank you enough for the years of work you spent creating your book and the time you took to talk with us here!

Discussion Questions

What were Heddy's biggest lessons in this pivotal Summer in her life? Do you agree with the lessons she learned or do you think it's different for everyone?

What was the biggest struggle for each main character, all experiencing life differently in the same place at the same time?

What did you take away from the Brooklyn and Martha's Vineyard settings? Would Heddy's experience have been the same or different elsewhere?

"Money can't buy happiness" is a major theme. Do you agree or disagree?

Nannies have a unique up close and personal view into the world of another family, likely one with more wealth. Would Heddy's experience have been the same or different if she took on a different role?

Why do you believe this novel was set in 1962? Would the storyline have been similar or different today?

What do you believe will happen in the next five years in Heddy's life?

For more book club questions:

Thank you to Brooke Lea Foster for sitting down to discuss Summer Darlings in an interview with me! I hope the interview and summary inspired you to pick up this juicy book and, if you already read it, I hope you are guided by the discussion questions and pairings.

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