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In this #1 bestselling page-turner from “the queen of beach reads” (New York Magazine), a Nantucket novelist has one final summer to protect her secrets while her loved ones on earth learn to live without their golden girl.
On a perfect June day, Vivian Howe, author of thirteen beach novels and mother of three nearly grown children, is killed in a hit-and-run car accident while jogging near her home on Nantucket. She ascends to the Beyond where she’s assigned to a Person named Martha, who allows Vivi to watch what happens below for one last summer. Vivi also is granted three “nudges” to change the outcome of events on earth, and with her daughter Willa on her third miscarriage, Carson partying until all hours, and Leo currently “off again” with his high-maintenance girlfriend, she’ll have to think carefully where to use them.
From the Beyond, Vivi watches “The Chief” Ed Kapenash investigate her death, but her greatest worry is her final book, which contains a secret from her own youth that could be disastrous for her reputation. But when hidden truths come to light, Vivi’s family will have to sort out their past and present mistakes—with or without a nudge of help from above—while Vivi finally lets them grow without her.
With all of Elin’s trademark beach scenes, mouth-watering meals, and picture-perfect homes, plus a heartfelt message—the people we lose never really leave us—Golden Girl is a beach book unlike any other.
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She receives a message from the front office: a new soul is about to join them, and this soul has been assigned to Martha.
Martha puts on her reading glasses and finds her clipboard. The soul is arriving from…Nantucket Island.
Martha is both surprised and delighted. Surprised because Nantucket Harbor is where Martha met her own fateful end two summers ago and she'd thought the front office was intentionally keeping her away from coastal areas so she didn't become (as Gen Z said) "triggered."
And Martha is delighted because…well, who doesn't love Nantucket?
Martha swoops down from the northeast so that her first glimpse of the island is the lighthouse that stands sentry at the end of the slender golden arm of Great Point. Martha spies seals frolicking just off the coast (and sharks stalking them a little farther out). She continues over Polpis Harbor, where the twelve-year-old class of Nantucket Community Sailing are taking their lessons in Optimists. One boat keels way over and comes dangerously close to capsizing. Martha blows a little puff of air—and the boat rights itself.
Martha dips over the moors, dotted with ponds and crisscrossed with sandy roads. She sees deer hiding deep in the woods. A Jeep is stuck in the soft sand by Jewel Pond; next to the Jeep, a young man lets a stream of swears fly (My oh my, Martha thinks) while his girlfriend tries to get a cell signal. She's sorry, she says, she just really wanted the early-morning light for her Instagram photos.
Martha chooses the scenic coastal route along the uninterrupted stretch of the south shore. Despite the early hour, there are plenty of people out and about. A woman-of-a-certain-age throws a tennis ball into the rolling waves for a chocolate-Lab-of-a-certain-age. (Martha misses dogs! She's far too busy to ever make it over to the Pet Division.) A white-haired gentleman charges into the water for his morning swim. There are a handful of fishermen out on Smith's Point, a cadre of young (and very attractive) surfers at Cisco, and a foursome teeing off—thwack!—from the first hole at the Miacomet Golf Course.
As Martha floats over Nobadeer Beach, she sees the town lifeguards gathering in the parking lot. Their conditioning session starts at a quarter past seven and it's nearly that time now. Martha has to hurry.
She has one more minute to appreciate the island on this clear, blue morning of Saturday, June 19—the sun glints off the gold cupola atop the Unitarian church; a line chef at Black-Eyed Susan's runs full speed down India Street, late for his shift. Across most of the island, irrigation systems switch on, sprinkling lawns and flower boxes, but not out in Sconset, where residents like to do things the old-fashioned way: they put on gardening clogs and grab watering cans. People are pouring their first cups of coffee, reading the front page of the Nantucket Standard. The thirty-five women who will be getting married today open their eyes and experience varying degrees of anticipation and anxiety. Contractors pull into Marine Home Center because they have punch lists that need to be completed yesterday; the summer people are arriving, they want their homes up and running. Charter fishing boats motor out of the harbor; the first batch of sugar doughnuts is pulled from the oven at the Downyflake—and oh, the scent!
Martha sighs. Nantucket isn't heaven, but it is heaven on Earth.
However, she isn't here to sightsee. She's here to collect a soul. The pinned location on Martha's map is Kingsley Road, almost at the intersection of Madaket but not quite.
Martha arrives with a full thirty seconds to spare, giving her a chance to inhale the heady fragrance of the lilacs that are in full bloom below. There's a dark-haired woman with fantastic legs jogging down the road, singing along to her music, but the rest of Kingsley is quite sleepy.
Fifteen seconds, ten seconds, five seconds. Martha double-checks her coordinates; it says she's in the right place…
In the time that Martha takes her gaze off the road, tragedy strikes. It happens quickly, the literal blink of an eye. Martha winces. What a pity!
All right, Martha thinks. Time to get to work.
It's a beautiful June day, the kind that Vivi writes about. In fact, all thirteen of Vivian Howe's novels—beach reads set on Nantucket—start in June. Vivi has never considered changing this habit because June on Nantucket is when things begin. The summer is a newborn; it's still innocent, pristine, a blank page.
At a few minutes past seven, Vivi is ready for her run. She takes the same route she's taken ever since she moved into Money Pit ten years ago, after her divorce: down her dirt road, Kingsley, to the Madaket Road bike path. The path goes all the way to the beach, though Vivi hasn't made it that far in years. Her hips. Also, she doesn't have time.
Vivi is agitated despite the sunshine, the bluebird sky, and the luscious bloom of the peonies in her cutting garden. The night before, Vivi's daughter Willa called to say that she's pregnant again. This marks Willa's fourth pregnancy since last June, which was when she and Rip got married.
"Oh, Willie!" Vivi said. "Yay, hurray—good, good news! How far along are you?"
"Six weeks," Willa said.
Still very, very early, Vivi thinks. Willa basically just missed her period. "You took a test?"
"More than one?"
"Two," Willa said. "The first was inconclusive. The second had two lines."
What Vivi did not say was Don't get your hopes up. Willa had miscarried three times. The first pregnancy had progressed to fifteen weeks. Willa started bleeding while she was giving a tour of the Hadwen House to a group of VIPs from the governor's office. She ran out on the tour and drove herself to the hospital. It was a horrible day, the most physically painful and difficult of the three miscarriages, though after the third, Willa became convinced there was a problem.
A thorough examination at the Brigham and Women's fertility clinic in Boston, however, showed nothing wrong. Willa was a healthy twenty-four-year-old. She had no problem getting pregnant. If Rip even looked at her, she conceived.
Privately, Vivi suspected the miscarriages had something to do with Willa's type A personality, which Vivi and her ex-husband, JP, used to call her "type A-plus personality," because regular As were never good enough for Willa.
"If this doesn't work out, why don't you and Rip take a break? You're so young. You have years and years, decades even, to conceive. What's the rush?"
Predictably, Willa had become defensive. "What makes you think this won't work out? Do you think I'm a failure?"
"You succeed at everything you do," Vivi said. "I just think your body might benefit from a reset—"
"I'm pregnant, Mama," Willa said. "I will give birth to a perfectly healthy baby." She sounded like she was trying to convince herself.
"You will give birth to a perfectly healthy baby, Willie. I can't wait to hold her." Though Vivi didn't feel quite old enough to be a grandmother. She was only fifty-one and in terrific shape, if she did say so herself. Her dark hair, which she wore in a pixie cut, didn't have one strand of gray (Vivi checked every morning). She might occasionally be mistaken for the child's mother. (Well, she could hope.)
The conversation had ended there but an unsettled feeling had lingered in Vivi through the night. Are children ever punished for the mistakes of their parents, she wondered, or was that just her novelist's mind at work?
Vivi had woken up at five thirty, not only because it was June and sunlight streamed in through the windows like it was high noon, but also because she heard a noise. When she crept out into the hallway, she saw her daughter Carson stumbling up the stairs, smelling distinctly of marijuana.
Vivi had last seen Carson the afternoon before, dressed for work in cutoff jeans and her marigold-yellow Oystercatcher T-shirt, her dark hair still a little damp, neat in two French braids. Carson was the most attractive of Vivi's three children, though of course Vivi wasn't supposed to think that. Carson alone favored JP—the dark hair, the clear, glass-green eyes, the fine pointed nose, and teeth that came in white, straight, and even. She was a Quinboro through and through, whereas both Willa and Leo favored the Howes. They'd inherited Vivi's overbite and crowded lowers and spent years in braces.
Carson was still in her cutoffs, but she had downgraded her T-shirt to something that looked like a silver-mesh handkerchief that only just covered her breasts and left her midriff and back bare except for one slender chain. She had no shoes on; her hair was out of its braids but held kinky waves. When she saw her mother standing at the top of the stairs, her eyebrows shot up.
"Madre," she said. "What's good?"
"Are you just getting home?" Vivi asked, though the answer was obvious. Carson was walking in at five thirty in the morning when her shift had ended at eleven. She was twenty-one, fine, so she'd had a drink at work and she probably went to the Chicken Box to catch the band's last set, then she either went to the beach with friends or hooked up with a random stranger.
"Yes, ma'am." Carson sounded sober, but that only served to make Vivi angrier.
"The summer isn't going to be like this, Carson," Vivi said.
"I hope you're right," Carson said. "Work was slow, my tips were trash, the guys at the Box all looked like they were on the junior-high fencing team."
"You can't stay out all night then come home reeking of marijuana—"
"Reeking of marijuana," Carson mimicked.
Vivi searched for extra patience, which was like trying to find a lost shoe in the depths of her maternal closet. This is Carson. Ten years earlier, when Vivi learned that her husband, JP, had fallen in love with his employee Amy, Vivi had moved out. All three kids took it hard, but especially Carson. Carson had been almost eleven years old and unusually attached to Vivi. Vivian's novel that year, Along the South Shore, had been something of a breakout book, and Vivi, wanting to escape the inevitable divorce fallout—people asking what happened, people asking was she okay, people telling her she was brave—had gone on a twenty-nine-stop book tour that kept her away for seven weeks (she'd missed the first day of school and Carson's birthday). By the time Vivi got back, Carson had changed from the funny little spitfire of the family to a "troubled child" who threw tantrums, swore, picked fights with her siblings, and generally did everything in her power to get attention. Vivi blamed the transformation on JP's affair (which their therapist had insisted they not disclose to the children), and JP blamed it on what he called Vivi's "abandonment."
Ten years had passed. Carson was no longer a little girl but she still had her challenging moments.
"This is my house," Vivi said. "I pay the mortgage, the taxes, the insurance, the electric bill, the heating bill, the cable bill. I do the shopping and make the meals. While you're sleeping under this roof, I don't want you out all night drinking, smoking, and having sex with complete strangers. Do you know how that looks?" Vivi stopped just short of reminding Carson that she'd already had chlamydia once, the previous summer. "You're setting a rotten example for your brother."
"He doesn't need me to set an example," Carson said. "He has Willa. I'm the screwup. It's my job to be a hideous disappointment."
"No one said you were a hideous disappointment, sweetheart."
"I'm twenty-one," Carson said. "I can drink legally. I can smoke pot legally."
"Since you're so grown up," Vivi said, "you can move out on your own."
"That's the plan," Carson said. "I'm saving."
You're not saving, Vivi wanted to say. Carson made good tips at the Oystercatcher but she spent them—on drinks, on weed, on clothes from Erica Wilson, Milly and Grace, the Lovely. Carson had finally dropped out of UVM after struggling through five semesters—her cumulative GPA was a 1.6—and although Vivi was initially aghast (an education makes you good company for yourself!), she knew college wasn't for everyone.
"I'm not giving you a curfew," Vivi said. "But this behavior won't be tolerated."
"This behavior won't be tolerated," Carson mimicked. It was the response of a seven-year-old, and yet it brought the reaction Carson wanted. Vivi took a step toward her, arm tensed. "Are you going to spank me?" Carson asked.
"Of course not," Vivi said, though she kind of wanted to. "But you have to clean up your act, babe, or I'll ask you to leave."
"Fine," Carson said. "I'll go to Dad's."
"I'm sure Amy would take very kindly to you coming home like this."
"She's not as bad as you think," Carson said. "When you demonize her, you show how insecure you are."
Vivi stared at her child, but before she could come up with a response, she smelled something. "Did you…cook?" Vivi asked.
Carson stepped into the bedroom and slammed the door behind her.
Vivi flew down the stairs to the kitchen, which was filling with black smoke. The leftover sausage and basil pasta from last night's dinner was in Vivi's brand-new All-Clad three-quart sauté pan on a lit burner. The inside of the pan was charred black. Vivi turned the burner off, grabbed a towel, carried the smoldering pan outside, and set it on the flagstone path. It was so hot, it would have scorched the deck or the lawn.
Brand-new pan, ruined.
The sausage and basil pasta in a luscious mustard cream sauce, which Vivi had been thinking of taking over to Willa's as a peace offering, ruined.
And what if Vivi hadn't gotten out of bed? What if the kitchen had caught fire; what if flames had engulfed Money Pit while Vivi—and Leo—were sleeping? They would all be dead!
Back in the kitchen, Vivi caught sight of her bottle of Casa Dragones tequila on the side counter next to a shot glass. She felt a formidable strain of fury brewing inside her. That tequila was hers; she wouldn't even let her (almost-ex-) boyfriend, Dennis, make margaritas with it. Carson had come home, put the pasta on a burner, done two—or three?—shots of Vivi's tequila, which Carson knew was not for public consumption, and then left the pasta to burn on the stove.
Vivi marched back up the stairs and pounded on Carson's locked door.
"You left the pan on an open flame!" Vivi said. Leo would definitely be awake now, which Vivi felt bad about because it was Saturday morning, but oh, well. "What is wrong with you, Carson? Do you honestly not think about anyone but yourself? Do you not think, period?" There was no response. Vivi kicked the door.
"Please go away" came the response from inside. "I'm trying to sleep."
"And you drank my tequila!" Vivi said. "Which you know is off-limits."
"I didn't drink the tequila," Carson said. "I haven't had a drink since I left the Chicken Box and that was hours ago."
Vivi blinked. Carson sounded like she was telling the truth and she had seemed sober. "Who drank it, then?"
There was a pause before Carson said, "Well, who else lives here?"
Leo? Vivi thought. She looked at Leo's bedroom door, which was shut tight. Leo had been going to high-school parties since he was a sophomore, but a run-in with Jägermeister had propelled him away from the hard stuff. He drank Bud Light and the occasional White Claw.
Vivi turned back to Carson's door. "You are scrubbing that pot, young lady," she said. "Or buying me a new one."
After Vivi poured herself some coffee, opened all the windows, turned both sailcloth ceiling fans to high, washed the shot glass, and hid what remained of the Casa Dragones in the laundry room (her kids would never find it there), she calmed down a bit. She was the mother of three very young adults and parenting very young adults required just as much patience as parenting very young children. No one ever talked about this; it felt like a dirty little secret. Vivi had always imagined that by the time her kids were twenty-four, twenty-one, and eighteen, they'd all be drinking wine together around the outdoor table by the pool, and the kids would be cooking, clearing, and giving Vivi sage investment advice. Ha.
Vivi ties up her running shoes and stretches her hamstrings, using the bumper of her Jeep—then she clicks on her iTunes on her phone and takes off.
Carson makes Vivi's running playlists, which she has named Nine-Pound Hammer, Strawberry Cough, and White Fire OG. (It took Vivi a while to figure out that these were all strains of marijuana, probably the ones that Carson was smoking when she made the respective playlists.)
Today, Vivi listens to Nine-Pound Hammer. Shuffle.
The first song is "All That and More," by Rainbow Kitten Surprise. The best thing about Carson as DJ is that Vivi is exposed to music she never would have heard otherwise. Over the past few months Vivi has become an avid fan of this song; it's both folksy and bouncy. All I ever wanted was to make you happy…
Just as Vivi turns the volume up, her phone whistles with a text from Dennis, her (almost-ex-) boyfriend, who is out deep-sea fishing. The text is a picture of Dennis in his wraparound sunglasses smiling, revealing the gap between his two front teeth. He's holding up a striped bass. The caption says Dinner!
Vivi doesn't answer. A week or so earlier, she told Dennis that she needed some space, and she asked him not to spend the night at her house anymore. Predictably, this resulted in Dennis giving Vivi even less space than usual. He texts and calls and "checks in" and assumes Vivi will want to grill up the striped bass he's caught. Poor Dennis. Vivi met him three years ago when he came to Money Pit to give her an estimate for central air. (Dennis owns a small HVAC company.) The AC was beyond Vivi's budget, but there had been chemistry between them and they started dating. Dennis works hard, plays hard, lives in the moment—fishing whenever he gets a chance in the summer, hunting in the fall, and he's the first person to get his scalloping license every year. He loves to drive his truck onto the beach and out into the moors; he showed Vivi hidden ponds and secret coves on the island that she'd never seen before, and she has lived on Nantucket three times as long as he has. JP once called Dennis "simple," but Vivi thinks of him as unencumbered. It was refreshing to date a man who could be happy with a good strong cup of coffee, an honest day's work, a swim in the ocean, a craft beer, and the sunset. He made Vivi laugh, he was her fierce champion, he was terrific in bed—and for a long while, this was all she needed or wanted.
She's not sure what happened; honestly, it was like God snapped Her fingers and all Vivi could see in Dennis was what he lacked, and everything he said and did started to chafe her. The magic is gone for Vivi and she suspects there will be no getting it back. She's ready to be a free woman again.
The lilacs along Kingsley Road are fragrant and full; they're peaking today and Vivi reminds herself to come back later and cut some for her bedside table. Next month, July, will be all about hydrangeas. Is another flower even photographed on Nantucket in July? Instagram would tell you no. Vivi inhales the scent of the lilacs and this improves her mood. When she gets home from her run, she will fix Carson some avocado toast with a slice of ripe hothouse tomato, a perfectly poached egg, and flaky sea salt on the excellent sourdough from Born and Bread. Food is Vivi's love language. Carson will know she's forgiven.
This summer, Carson is working as the head bartender at the Oystercatcher, a big old wooden shambles of a place, beat up in the best way, that sits right on Jetties Beach. There are low-slung chairs in the sand where people can have drinks while they wait to sit at one of the brightly painted picnic tables in the spacious open-air dining area. Up a few steps is the hostess station and a small stage that fits exactly one guitar player, one amp, and one mic. Up a few more steps there's the bar, the raw bar, the kitchen, and a retail shop that sells inflatable rafts, beach toys, T-shirts, sunscreen, and candy.
Vivi went to visit Carson at the Oystercatcher for the first time in mid-May, just after it opened for the season. There were a lot of familiar faces; Vivi and Dennis stopped to talk here and there before they took seats at the bar. Carson approached, seeming uncharacteristically shy.
"Can I get you two started with something to drink?"
She was already so professional and smooth! She recited the specials rapturously, like she was reading poetry. "The chef has prepared a shellfish pizza tonight, featuring…" Yes, yes, they definitely wanted the lobster and scallop pizza and they would start with a dozen oysters, a chopped salad, and the smoked bluefish pâté.
Carson took their order without writing anything down. She looked adorable—the cutoffs, the T-shirt, a short black canvas apron tied around her waist that held her corkscrew and her bottle opener.
Carson busied herself polishing glasses, leaving Vivi to her sauvignon blanc and Dennis to his Bell's Two Hearted IPA. The guitar player started up, singing "Wonderwall," by Oasis. The sun was going down and it was getting chilly. Vivi considered asking Carson if she wanted her to grab her a cardigan from the car but she knew Carson would decline and, perhaps, tell her to stop acting like a mom, it was embarrassing.
Just then, Zach and Pamela Bridgeman took seats at the end of the bar. Vivi waved and Dennis raised his beer in their direction, but no words were exchanged. Pamela was the (much) older sister of Rip Bonham, Willa's husband, so they were, sort of, family. Pamela worked with Rip in the family's insurance agency and her husband, Zach, was an air traffic controller at Nantucket Memorial. Zach and Pamela had a son, Peter, who was in Leo's class, though the two boys weren't friends. At the beginning of their senior year, Peter and Leo had gotten into a fistfight at one of the Whaler football games. Peter had said something crass and pushed Leo, Leo pushed back, Peter swung, and a brawl ensued. Vivi blamed Peter—he had always been an odd, aggressive kid, and Leo was a sweetheart, a peacemaker who got along with everyone. What had Peter said to start the fight?
"Something stupid," Leo told Vivi. "He's a bully."
The stench of this incident had never really gone away; hence, conversation with the Bridgemans was a challenge. Vivi used to talk to Zach about books—they went through a simultaneous obsession with Greg Iles, then with Attica Locke—but at some point, Pamela made a snarky comment and Vivi realized that Pamela found the book conversations tiresome. If they didn't talk about books or about the boys, there was little to say.
What captured Vivi's attention was the way the Bridgemans' presence seemed to fluster Carson. She tripped on the rubber mat beneath her feet, tried to right herself, and crashed into a row of glassware.
"Oh, shi…zzle," she said, then clapped a hand over her mouth. "Hey, guys. What can I get you? To drink?"
"Hey." Pamela offered Carson a nonsmile smile. "May we see a menu?"
"I'll have a Maker's Mark over ice, please," Zach said.
"One Maker's on the rocks," Carson said. "And what about you, Pamela?"
"Menu?" Pamela said.
"Of course!" Carson said. She pulled a menu out of a slot and a couple of them fell to the floor, which she ignored.
"I didn't realize you were still working here," Pamela said. "I thought maybe you'd moved on to bigger and better things."
Vivi nearly choked on her wine. Who said things like that? Well, Pamela Bonham Bridgeman did.
Carson withdrew a couple of inches. "I used to be a barback. Now I'm…head bartender!"
"Good for you," Zach said.
"I'll have a Diet Coke," Pamela said.
"Coming right up," Carson said. "Will you two be having dinner?"
Pamela laughed. "I didn't come here just for a Diet Coke."
Vivi wanted to pipe up and say, Can you please be nice? We're all family here.
"Right, of course not," Carson said. "Let me get your drinks and then I'll take your order."
Carson's hands shook as she poured the bourbon; some spilled over the side of the glass, but she wiped the glass down with a bar towel and handed the glass to Zach, saying, "Oh, you need a menu too."
Pamela put on her reading glasses. Pamela's most distinctive feature was her hair. It was an unusual shade of dark red with an iconic stripe of white-blond in the front. She never wore makeup, and her skin still looked pretty good. (It was a pathetic habit of Vivi's to evaluate the appearance of other women to see if they were faring better or worse than Vivi herself. She had thought that by fifty, she would no longer care how she looked, but she'd been wrong. When did
"Hilderbrand’s latest, most philosophical and (I’m declaring it) best novel. . . . The story is a family saga, a mystery and a moving retrospective that manages to be clever without being coy."—Elisabeth Egan, New York Times
"It's not officially summer until Elin Hilderbrand drops her annual page-turner. In this one, novelist Vivi dies in a hit-and-run and ascends to the Beyond, where she learns she has three "nudges" to influence events on earth. In this touching, scenic story, we learn what it is to let go and let life go on."—Good Housekeeping
"It's almost summer, which means Hilderbrand's legions of fans will be anxious for her latest. . . . This is classic Hilderbrand. . . . hopefully, she has many more Nantucket tales in store."—Booklist
"It has suspense, beautiful beach scenes and inspirational anecdotes. You really can't do better than that."—Cosmopolitan
"Golden Girl is surprising, delightful and—dare I say?—quirky. . . . The book is filled with Hilderbrand’s trademark gorgeous scenes and delicious dialogue. But Golden Girl also explores the author’s own place in the literary pantheon, often with a wink and a nod to the reader. . . . It is funny and heartbreaking, and even though it’s in some ways a departure for Hilderbrand, the novel still offers plenty of that Nantucket air to keep you turning pages."—BookPage
"Beautifully uplifting . . . an emotionally powerful story. Faithful readers have come to depend on Hilderbrand's top-notch escapist fiction that puts lively, dramatic new spins on families challenged by love and loss. Golden Girl will exceed their expectations."—Shelf Awareness
"Hilderbrand’s writing is witty, spunky, fun and dramatic."—Book Reporter
PRAISE FOR 28 SUMMERS:
"Summer on Hilderbrand's Nantucket is never dull. This time she focuses on former lovers who now lead separate lives but share an island idyll once a year. Captivating and bittersweet."—People
"In her 25th novel, Hilderbrand gets everything right and leaves her ardent fans hungry for No. 26. Hilderbrand sets the gold standard in escapist fiction."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Jun 1, 2021
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown and Company