The allure of getting lost in a page-turner while lounging in a low beach chair grows ever more alluring as we move through summertime. The idea of sunny or even rainy days spent lost in a compulsively readable book can be bliss for fiction readers. I’ve always treasured those moments of dozing off and awaking eager to find out what happened next. Some characters even populated my unconscious. My junior high school crush played Rhett Butler in my dream version of the novel! But as I grew older, I craved racier stories and some of those lusty, thrilling, and occasionally frightening novels have stayed with me as well.
This idiosyncratic list of classic beach reads may resonate with those who have Coppertone-stained paperbacks around. Given the world we’re living in, this may be the perfect time to dip into them again or to invite a new generation to pick up these reprieves from current events. After all, beach reading equals escape reading. And just in case, for those of you who would rather, each of these has been made into a pretty good movie!
The grandmother of American romantic sagas features the drama of the Civil War and two diametrically opposite pairs: Scarlett and Rhett and Melanie and Ashley. Scarlett’s charm makes men swoon, but she is made of steel. Melanie is virtuous but not much fun. Rhett has been described as the ultimate boyfriend and Ashley the perfect husband – clearly these matches are made in heaven. War, romance, family finances, and the Blue versus the Gray make this one of the most readable novels of all time.
If the 1950s were characterized by conformity and I Like Ike buttons, Americans were also restless and seeking vicarious thrills in their reading. Peyton Place offers something for everyone in search of the scandalous – incest, abortion, sexual adventure, and murder. All this seethes just beneath the placid exterior of the eponymous New England town where Constance, Allison, and Selena live turbulent lives. Squalor, money, and secrets abound, and the novel is a look back to a period when good and evil were clearly delineated – a time that now seems so innocent. Maybe that’s the reason it’s still such an enjoyable read.
Over the course of twenty years, from 1945 to 1965, three women are buffeted by the joys and sorrows of Broadway and Hollywood, helped at various times by uppers and downers. Anne Welles, Neely O’Hara, and Jennifer North are the women who cross paths with a variety of unscrupulous designers, agents, and lovers. Although Susann denied that the novel was a roman a clef, many believe that these characters are vaguely disguised big-name stars. Panned by reviewers, this sensational and best-selling novel is still an all-time great beach read.
An impoverished beauty, Noelle Page, learns to take advantage of men and finally falls madly in love, only to be spurned and forgotten by RAF pilot Larry Douglas, who eventually marries Catherine Alexander. Over the course of 400 or so pages, via a breathless and suspenseful narrative, there is betrayal, passionate sex, manipulative sex, coerced sex, and abortion alongside money, attempted murder, and courtroom drama. Called sleazy and trashy by some, it is certainly a salacious story that edges toward – but doesn’t become – pornographic. The novel sold very well indeed and is as titillating today as it was in the 1970s.
This may be a no-brainer as a great beach read. When Benchley’s novel first appeared, hundreds of thousands of vacationers stayed on their beach towels and out of the water fearing shark attacks. Set in Amity, Long Island, the novel follows the terrifying incident and the three men who set out to kill the big fish. Though potentially categorized the poor man’s Moby-Dick, Jaws is fast paced (this couldn’t be said of Melville) and has no whale blubber. It also features a good deal of violence wreaked by a man-eating shark, jealousy and infidelity, money and class conflicts and, just for good measure, a Mafia subplot.
Okay, so the title makes this novel a natural for the list, but now that you’ve had your fill of escapism, it might be time for a devastating reality check. Set in the early 1960s, Shute’s narrative is one of the first to deal with the post-apocalyptic consequences of the atom bomb. It’s not a happy tale and the political underpinnings of the narrative may be eerily prescient. It is difficult to read this today without shuddering. But then again, fear and romance along with emotional and intellectual involvement are the ultimate satisfaction in a beach novel, and this one truly delivers it all.