Cape May By Chip Cheek – A Review

Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Publication Date: 30th April

That cover! How beautiful and classy is that?!

I requested a copy of Cape May after reading the blurb and thinking ‘yeah go on then’. Knowing I would potentially enjoy it, BUT I had no idea just how much it would consume me!

1957 and young newlyweds Henry and Effie arrive at Cape May a coastal town in New Jersey, for their honeymoon.

Not quite realising that it being autumn and ‘out of season’ this would mean the town was more or less desolate. Certainly the street in which their honeymoon cottage is situated is full of locked up, deserted houses.

They spend their first week in Cape May trying to fill their time. Walks on the beach, shopping in the handful of stores that are still open for business and discovering each other’s bodies in ways they never had before their marriage.

But as Effie grows increasingly sullen, withdrawn and seemingly bored, Henry begins to panic that he’s not fulfilling all of his new wife’s needs and their idyllic honeymoon they had been so looking forward to was ruined. When they decide to cut their honeymoon short and return home, Henry’s confidence is shaken. That is until one night, a light goes on in the house at the end of the street.

Deciding to be neighbourly, and in desperation for different company, Henry and Effie decide to go and introduce themselves. This action changes the course of their honeymoon and indeed their relationship forever.

Residing at the house on the corner are socialite Clara Kirschbaum, her writer lover Max and his mysterious step-sister Alma. In that first night of meeting, Henry and Clara are swept up in a hedonistic party. Gin and tonics aplenty, music, dancing, lots of people chatting and laughing. Henry can’t quite believe his luck, whilst a tentative Effie who knows Clara of old is slightly more wary.

The party is a catalyst for the newlyweds to discover a new way of life, to abandon their plans to cut short their honeymoon and stay on at Cape May and become embroiled in this wild and carefree lifestyle.

Drinking all day and sailing in the sunshine. Drinking and eating in front of the open fire at night time, divulging secrets and opening up. Walking naked around the neighbourhood in wild abandon, making love on the front lawn, certain nobody else can see them in their deserted street. It almost feels as if the town is their oyster.

But when Henry begins to look a little too closely at how his wife responds to Max and is forced to confront his own awakening desires for the aloof Alma, their marriage is tested on levels they never could have envisaged.

Oh my! This book! It had me gripped from the outset. I would say that it is mostly a character study more than it is a plot driven story. Don’t get me wrong, things happen! Oh boy do things happen! But the element I found most fascinating was seeing how both Henry and Effie changed as people over as short a space of time as a few weeks. How the outside influences of others changed the whole dynamic of their relationship.

The story is told from Henry’s point of view which I really enjoyed. He starts out as such a sweetie and despite the fact that he’s not perfect by any means I kind of felt for him. He is flawed, as they all are but each of the characters is still very relatable. Each of them displaying differing negative personality traits. Clara is frivolous, gregarious, overtly sensual, Henry finds himself entranced by her voluptuous, generous body, so at odds with his young wife’s. Max is enigmatic, oozing with charisma, wealthy and wild. Alma by contrast is a little introspective, stand offish, enjoying her own company away from the raucous lifestyle of the group.

Chip Cheek’s writing is so vibrant that this group of characters are brought expertly to life. The party scene at the start of the story felt like I was watching it play out in front of me in glorious technicolour! I could almost hear the clink of glasses and the hubbub of chatter and laughter. Superbly evocative writing.

The very nature of this hedonistic beast is that it of course has its sex scenes. They are not unduly graphic or salacious. We have some very perfunctory, down to earth ‘real’ moments and we have a particularly teasing and tantalising scene towards the end of the story which was perfectly pitched and perfectly placed. A story of awakening desires, burgeoning sexuality and discovery of pleasure.

The final few pages of the book wrap up Effie and Henry’s lives. Spanning many years into the future. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. I think maybe I would have liked to have been left guessing but then equally I gobbled up the detail voraciously and was pleased with the conclusion, so what do I know eh?!

This is one of those books that I know I will be wanging on about. I already have been! It is one I will recommend again and again. It starts with an almost ‘On Chesil Beach’ vibe but swiftly turns into something so much more.

I cannot wait to read more of Chip Cheek’s work. Simply stunning.

Thank you as always to Poppy Stimpson and Wiedenfeld and Nicolson for the advanced proof copy.

See you soon

Bookish Chat xxx

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