Reviewed by Sara Hodon
by Mary Kay Andrews
St Martin’s Press
Hardcover: 464 pages, May 17, 2016, ISBN-13: 978-1250065940
Mary Kay Andrews is known as the “Queen of the Beach Read”, and with good reason. Her novels have an equal mix of style and substance, sass and subtlety. Andrews is adept at helping readers get away from it all by taking them somewhere they’ve never been, but wish they had visited before. Her latest novel, The Weekenders, is no exception.
Andrews’ books aren’t exactly heavy reading, but they aren’t light and fluffy, either. Her characters have some depth and her plots are not outside the realm of possibility. They’re perfect choices to toss into a beach bag to read during a day in the sun. They are engaging and fun, with multiple storylines and endings readers don’t always anticipate. In her earlier books, Andrews favored a dash of whodunit, but in her last few books, she shifted her focus to the relationships between her characters (usually of the romantic variety) rather than setting up a murder mystery. The Weekenders has her returning to her roots with a little bit of both.
Despite being in an unhappy marriage, Riley Nolan Griggs is looking forward to a relaxing summer on Belle Isle, North Carolina in her vacation home with her family. But when she and her daughter Maggy arrive on the ferry, her estranged husband Wendell is nowhere to be found. Fuming, Riley assumes that Wendell has let their daughter down again, but for Maggy’s sake, Riley presses on.
Riley and Maggy’s first day on the island continues but doesn’t improve. Riley learns more about what her husband has been up to recently, and it certainly hasn’t been spending time with the family. She finds their island home locked, a notice of foreclosure posted to the door. She and Maggy bunk with Riley’s mother Evelyn at Shutters, the family’s longtime vacation home. Little by little, details come to light—Wendell been negotiating land and development deals and trying (and failing) to raise the capital for a growing list of projects, most of which promise to affect the landscape of Belle Isle. The more she learns, the more Riley wonders if she ever knew her husband at all. Things get more complicated when Wendell’s body washes up on the shore. Added to the mix are a fair number of family secrets (including her mother and brother Bily’s investments in Wendell’s deals and her aunt Roo’s nest egg that shocks all of them in the best possible way, at the best possible time) and Nate Milas, an old flame that reappears in Riley’s life before she even gets off the ferry. Nate plays an important role throughout the rest of the book, as well.
Andrews has two outstanding strengths as an author: character development and attention to detail. She takes readers right to this quiet, beautiful island and gives us a tour of its dwellings, many of which date back to the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Most of her protagonists are strong, funny, Southern women who accept their flaws and own the choices they’ve made, good or bad. Riley Griggs is somewhat of an anomalous Andrews heroine—she gave up her career as a TV journalist in favor of raising her daughter and being Wendell’s wife. It’s a choice she grapples with even after Maggy becomes a teenager and starts testing her own independence. Riley is at that crossroads that many soon-to-be-divorced women experience—she knows that divorce will change everything, yet she wants to keep things as status quo as she can, mainly for the sake of her daughter. Of course, Wendell’s death means that Riley has to make some big life decisions quickly. Maggy’s grief over losing her father and the open hostility towards her mother (compounded by the usual teenage mood swings) doesn’t make these necessary decisions any easier. Riley and Maggy’s love-hate relationship is typical of any mother and daughter, compounded by their grief and pressures of loss. Maggy is devastated by the death of the father she adored; Riley is furious at her husband for leaving her with few options and even less in their bank account. She was already prepared to walk away from their life together; his death simply makes the transition to her new life a bit more delicate.
As if Riley isn’t dealing with enough stress, there’s the nagging complication of her frequent run-ins with her old flame Nate Milas—the one that got away, the one who continues to cross her mind every so often…the one who can’t get her out of his mind, either. They’re both at a crossroads, both personally and professionally, and tread lightly. Andrews spends a good bit of time on the logistics of their relationship, which goes back to their college days. Their re-blossoming romance is frankly more interesting than Riley and Wendell’s marriage, which is clearly over. Both Andrews and her protagonist seem eager to move on to Riley’s next chapter, but the details of Wendell’s shady business dealings and of course solving the mystery of his death continue to pop up. Andrews has the island police handling Wendell’s death investigation, and the overall slower pace of island living seems to apply to murder cases, as well. The sheriff shows up to do more questioning every few chapters or so, but Riley and her best friend, former attorney Parrish Godchaux, seem to make more progress by doing their own snooping. Wendell’s underhanded business dealings are the underpinning of the entire novel, yet his actual death and the investigation that follows do not seem to be major drivers of the plot. Clearly, Andrews is focusing on Riley and her reinvention. It’s not a direct route, and Riley makes some detours along the way, but she finally decides on her new direction and gives it her all. In the end it’s the right decision for her and Maggy, leaving readers with a satisfying ending. The Weekenders is the perfect companion to a beach chair, large umbrella, and icy cocktail (preferably also with an umbrella).
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in over two dozen print and online publications.