In 1957, Henry and Effie marry straight from their rural Georgia high school and honeymoon in Cape May, New Jersey. Arriving in late September to find the summer-resort town largely deserted, they fall in with city sophisticates staying next door, and a nonstop party results. At first, Henry’s more susceptible than his bride, attracted by “civilization,” what these mildly degenerate Yankees represent to him. And in that fever, he loses his common sense and his moral compass, with lasting consequences.
Cheek’s a terrific observer of social interactions and sexual mores. What could have been a stagey, turgid domestic drama feels surprisingly open, fluid, and freewheeling. This requires a subtle touch, the ability to evoke movement even when people are sitting still and the simmering tension beneath the surface. Cheek delivers splendidly, casting a sexual charge throughout, like a humid summer day before a thunderstorm. Yet he employs no pyrotechnics, just remarkably simple language that renders small moments in perfect detail.
Even so, Cape May falls short of memorable. I understand Henry, somewhat, but Effie hardly at all, and the sophisticates even less. They seem too brittle to feel anything, rushing between experiences to prevent what they most fear, boredom. I would have wanted flashes of depth, glimmers of what they’re trying not to face; though, since the naïve newlyweds provide the only perspectives, that’s difficult to achieve.
Absent clothing styles or brief mentions of current events, I would never have known the novel portrays the late Fifties, so as historical fiction, Cape May doesn’t satisfy. Fans of the literary will enjoy the writing but perhaps find the characters more a collection of attitudes than complex humans.