The High Season reminded me of the women of Tilling in “Mapp and Lucia” when Mapp rented Mallards to Lucia, which meant that Mapp would rent Diva’s house, and Diva would rent Irene’s house, and Irene would rent a cottage. I was reminded of Tilling and Riseholme, not just because The High Season opens with Ruthie and her daughter, Jem, packing up their home to rent it to summer people so they could afford to live in it the rest of the year. Orient, a quiet and quaint village on the far end of Long Island, is also populated by the kind society-and class-obsessed characters who would be totally at home with the parochial concerns of Mapp and Lucia.
Ruthie is the center of the novel, the director of The Belfry, a local museum she has taken from moribund nonentity to a vital community force. Her husband Mike and she have separated but are determined to be friends to make it easier for their daughter Jem whose fifteen and feeling uncool. Mike left and Ruthie is hopeful that they can get back together though I can’t think of one reason why. Hope is dashed, though, when Mike falls for her renter Adeline Clay. Jem is also inappropriately interested in the renter’s handsome adult stepson, Lucas.
Meanwhile, on the professional front, a board member and a subordinate are conspiring to get rid of her. It’s unclear why Mindy, the board member, is so awful, though the world is populated by people who agitate for change just to prove they did something. Things come to a head and Ruthie loses her job, and with it, her good sense, pursuing some dubious schemes to rescue herself.
Doe also works at the Belfry. She is a young woman determined to make her way into society, doctoring his history and education to gain entree. She’s also the anonymous genius behind a gossip Instagram with a growing following. She works at fitting in and social climbing the way most people work at their jobs. Her facade of privilege is at risk when her blatantly working-class mother comes to town.
I liked The High Season far more than I liked Ruthie. I wonder if the author used the diminutive of Ruth, which means compassion, to highlight Ruthie’s lack of compassion. She’s one of those people who kick down. The people she is really mad at are Adeline and Mike for finding love and spoiling her ridiculous idea she and Mike would remain forever a family despite their separation. She is angry with the board president Mindy and her coworker Catha, so she is foul beyond reason to Gloria, a hapless board member who disappointed her, but who did not deserve to be shamed as Ruthie shamed her. Her anger at Adeline led her to strike out at her friends’ Penny and Elena, expecting them to forgo professional dreams because Adeline helped them network. She also persuaded herself that a couple felonies were entirely justified. With exquisite self-delusion, most of the time Ruthie thought she was the most wonderful person in Orient.
Ruthie is angry with her friend Carole for not speaking up even though Carole was in Europe. Carole warned her before she left, but Ruthie glosses over it to attack Carole for being a bad friend. But to me, that seems convenient. She took advantage of Carole’s friendship and contemplated a serious breach. Perhaps the guilt of that makes her attack Carole so unfairly, but to me, it seems more displacement. She can’t attack Mindy, so she attacks who is convenient.
On the other hand, Doe has no such generous and fulsome self-image. She thinks she is undeserving and expects like to go awry, which it has time and time again. But Doe speaks up when she sees something wrong, she is the real moral force in this book even though she’s presented as someone on the make. She may be on the make, but she is the nicest person in the book.
The story is fast-paced and would make an entertaining summer read. There are several one-dimensional characters who lack the complexity to make their actions sensible. Mindy is horrible, but why? Because she read some book about disrupting being the secret to success? Lucas is louche and morally unfit, a creep. Mike is a manchild who conveniently falls in love with someone who can give him all his dreams. The only characters with real complexity are Ruthie and Doe, our main characters.
I received an ARC from the publisher through Shelf Awareness.