I recently read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening for book club. In The Awakening, published in 1899, Edna Pontellier is living an average life with her husband, Leonce, and her two sons in New Orleans, Louisiana, when she is “awakened” to her true self by falling love with a young man, Robert, while summering on Grand Isle. Edna realizes that she has been denying herself of a life by settling for a man she doesn’t love and children that she’s sacrificing her self for, as well as a society that will never allow her to truly live her life the way she would like.
When the book was published, it (and its author) was very scandalous and controversial. The Awakening is a book that focuses on women’s issues without condescension or judgement — Edna is who she is, without apology or explanation. Her struggles are some that women in the 21st century struggle with, as the demands on women have not changed since the 19th century — women are expected to keep the house, raise the children, support the husband, and now are also expected to have a successful career at the same time, and all with a smile on their face. The idea that women could possibly want more than what they have or dislike their role in society or be sexually attracted to someone that was not their husband or have an affair and sex with someone that they didn’t love, much less that Kate Chopin (who was a single mother of six, mind you) would write about these things, was too much for audiences (men) to bear, and the novel was censored upon its publication.
While not necessarily a “light summer read” that most people would choose for their poolside reading, the novel takes place on the beach and has some wonderful imagery and descriptions of the ocean.
The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.
If that doesn’t make you want to book a trip to the ocean, I don’t know what will.
I live on the Gulf Coast, so I know that not every experience at the beach is a happy one — the same sun, sand, and surf that we enjoy in the summer can be a devastating hurricane or a shipwreck, also. Still, nothing says “summer” than a beach read, and even in the winter months a book about the beach is familiar and somehow makes you warmer.
Some good ones (read them in the next few weeks of summer or when you need a vitamin D blast in the winter):
Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
The Art of Keeping Secrets by Patti Callahan Henry
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen
Swim by Lynn Sherr
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman