Literary Ladies -August 2011

by: Hana Schuster

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Recently recognized by The New York Times as two of this year’s best-selling authors, island writers Nancy Thayer and Elin Hilderbrand each released new books this year that seamlessly blend love, loss and healing into two unforgettable tales set right here on Nantucket.

Both Thayer and Hilderbrand are known for their summertime novels about troubled characters and their paths to recovery on Nantucket.

Thayer’s novel, “Heat Wave,” is an emotionally-charged story that follows the life of Carley Winstead after her husband’s sudden, tragic death and her realization that he has left the family’s finances in less than solvent condition. To keep her daughters Cisco and Margaret in their idyllic, beloved Nantucket home, a grand historic house on the cliff, Carley decides to turn her house into a bed and breakfast for island visitors.

While she tries to keep her family together by working as an innkeeper, Carley battles the ups and downs of grief over her lost love and guilt over a budding romance. Meanwhile, her daughters must come to terms with their new arrangement. Cisco struggles with an eating disorder, Carley’s best friends Maud and Vanessa add page-turning doses of scandal, betrayal and forgiveness, and her overbearing inlaws never fail to communicate their disapproval of her efforts.

To create Carley’s character, Thayer reflected on her own time as a single mother with two children after a divorce, which helped her determine how a young widow like Carley would act and feel.

“I remembered worrying about how I’d support my kids, how I would keep them happy. I wondered if anyone would ever love me again, and I wondered when it was appropriate to admit an attraction to someone new,” Thayer said. “All of those things are very relatable feelings for newly-single moms, and they all come up in this book.”

Thayer’s unique understanding of the range of human emotions is a rare find in light-hearted beach reads, yet she expertly manages to craft a heart-warming novel that will take readers on an emotional roller-coaster full of family connections, hysterical summer guests and the drama of everyday life.

Thayer captures the nuances of grief, the unexpected and surprising feelings it can cause, and the subtleties of guilt and acceptance that only someone who has experienced true loss can understand.

While she was in London promoting her first novel, “Summer House,” Thayer received news that her brother, 29, had unexpectedly died. She scrambled to make it back to Kansas, her home state, in time for the funeral but was too late.

“I felt tremendous guilt. Guilt for not being there when it happened, and for not getting there in time afterward. I still think about what I should have done and the things I should have said.”

Thayer has taken to heart the Kansas state motto: ad astra per aspera (“to the stars through difficulties”). “I’m an optimistic person,” she said. “I’ve always known I could achieve anything, but it wouldn’t be easy. And it’s no different for my characters.”

I like to write about ordinary people,” Thayer said. “I’ve always thought the drama of ordinary life was fascinating, and since no one gets through life without struggles, it’s also universally relatable.”

In order to create an accurate, believable account of a woman starting a bed and breakfast on Nantucket, Thayer did her research. She stayed in close contact with Ann Balas, owner of the Anchor Inn, who educated her about licensing regulations and state rules regarding lodging establishments.

Thayer also consulted several online discussion boards for innkeepers, one in particular, called, where innkeepers all over America connect with each other and discuss everything from muffin recipes to handling theft and difficult guests.

“It was amazing to learn that all these innkeepers across America all shared the same problems,” Thayer said. “That really pushed me to include a lot of those issues in the novel.”

The impetus behind Carley’s bed and breakfast idea started with Thayer’s own hectic summers catering to visiting guests. “I think anyone who lives here in the summer has had plenty of guests stay with them at one point or another, and it often feels like you’re running a B&B yourself,” said Thayer, who has had a house on Nantucket for 26 years and hosted countless visitors.

“Whenever people came to stay, I’d make sure the guest rooms were perfect, but I didn’t care what my own room looked like,” Thayer said. “I’d shuttle people to the beach, then run home and cook dinner. I’d put out all the best towels so everyone could shower when they get back. It feels like I’m running a hotel sometimes, and I think a lot of people who own homes here can really relate to that.”

The relationship between Carley and her guests adds an unexpected element to the novel. While Carley provides for her guests, they end up providing things for her too; her visitors give her new ideas about life and a sense of hope that Carley so desperately needs.

“I think that’s what happens with people,” Thayer said. “We set out to do things for ourselves, and get something totally unexpected and wonderful given back to us.”

Hilderbrand’s novel, “Silver Girl,” addresses similar issues, like unexpected financial troubles, struggling friendships and the healing powers of Nantucket. In her latest beach-read, Hilderbrand tells the tale of Meredith Delinn, a New York City socialite and wife of a Madoff-esque Wall Street mogul who is exposed by the FBI as the head of a financial scandal that rocks the country.

Meredith is kicked out of her penthouse apartment by the IRS and becomes a social outcast, while the man she thought she loved sits in ail, and her sons, also under investigation, remain unreachable. With no one left to turn to, Meredith asks for help from estranged childhood friend Constance Flute, who must deal with losses of her own. The two friends flee to Connie’s Nantucket home to escape, heal and come to terms with their changing relationship.

In April 2009, following the Bernie Madoff scandal, Hilderbrand was deeply affected by The New York Times article “The Loneliest Woman in New York.” The article described the altered life of Ruth Madoff, who was the target of “white hot and vitriolic” hatred from the public after her husband’s financial fraud was exposed, though she was not found guilty of any crimes herself.

The article concludes by pointing out that Madoff ’s childhood friend was the only one left standing by her side.

Inspired and troubled by Madoff’s circumstances, Hilderbrand set out to recreate her life at the time of the investigation through fictional character Meredith Delinn, who, like Madoff, was accustomed to living in the lap of luxury, but found herself shunned by her florist, her stylist, her friends and even her family.

Nantucket was a natural respite for Meredith, according to Hilderbrand, because of its spiritual and geographic separation from the rest of the world. “It’s an authentic place,” Hilderbrand said, “probably one of the last in America. It’s so contained and apart from everything else that I think it’s the perfect healing place for Meredith, who really needs to be separated from the world for a while.”

Meredith grows to love the island, which feeds her soul and helps restore her confidence in herself and in the goodness of others.

“This one was a hard novel to write,” said Hilderbrand, who struggled to make Meredith’s character sympathetic. “It’s hard to feel sorry for someone who lives in unbelievable luxury and may or may not have something to do with the financial ruin of hundreds of thousands of people.”

But there is something about Meredith’s story that’s relatable. “Everyone has experienced isolation, rejection, loneliness. Meredith’s story is all of those things, just on a much bigger scale,” Hilderbrand said.

The title, “Silver Girl,” comes from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (“Sail on silver girl, sail on by...”), which Hilderbrand’s late father used to sing to her as a teenager.

The novel features many flashbacks to Meredith’s childhood in Philadelphia, which, according to Hilderbrand, mirrors her own child- hood in Collegeville, Pa.; Meredith’s father also dies during her teenage years, and, Hilderbrand said, “the relationship between Meredith and her father was taken almost directly from my life. Their connection is very personal and special to me.”

Hilderbrand moved to Nantucket from New York City 18 years ago and fell in love with the island immediately. While studying at the University of Iowa’s acclaimed Writers’ Workshop for two years, Hiderbrand missed the island and longed to return.

“I had so many nostalgic feelings for Nantucket while I was away, so I decided to write about it. I figured that was the best way to feel connected to it,” Hilderbrand said. “That’s how all my books get started – with my love of the island.”

Thayer agreed that there is something unique and special about Nantucket that makes it the natural setting for her and Hilderbrand’s novels. “Nantucket is just different,” Thayer said. “There is so much natural beauty here. And no place else has a Christmas Stroll where Santa Claus arrives on a boat.”

“A Nantucket setting gives inherent beauty and depth to a story,” she continued. “There are so many interesting people from all different backgrounds, and so many families and so many stories here. It’s an inspiring place to write, and to write about.” 

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