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Cape May by Chip Cheek

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Article by Dymphna Nugent ©.
Posted in | .

With a flawless marriage of setting and character development, Cape May oozes glamour and sophistication with echoes of The Great Gatsby. The reader is treated to a nostalgia-soaked setting adorned with ice-creams and boardwalks, wide brimmed sunhats and sunglasses. Newlyweds Henry and Effie, young and tender, holiday in Cape May, New Jersey for their honeymoon. The resort in summer had been a shaping influence in Effie’s early years but as a married woman, she is hurt by the change in atmosphere in Cape May; perhaps it is the inevitable change that comes when we try to revist anywhere from childhood, it is more than the landscape which changes but the very essence of us. We can never return to those exact moments, tendrils of temporary mist. With their days spent cautiously navigating their new sexual experiences and settling into culinary domesticity, a sharp contrast between the icecream stands at the seaside and the gloomy pockets of memory in the house highlight the sensation created by Chip Cheek that Henry and Ellie are playing house, never truly comfortable with their new marriage.

On the verge of returning home early, the door to the fantasy land of Cape May opens and Effie and Henry meet Clara, her lover Max and his half-sister Alma. Time seems to completely suspend and socialite Clara, through the medium of her spectacular parties, offers the newlyweds a different view of Cape May. The walls of monotony are ripped down and the autumnal deserted town becomes their very own. They walk the streets naked, children of the moonlight. They sail on the yacht, clinking gin glasses; a kind of wildly savage freedom. Collectively, they cling to freedom and act with abandon. The boundaries of relationships are tested and this new freedom takes on a destructive quality. Days blend into night and the cycle repeats, the gin glasses are topped up and the sexuality and confidence fostered by Clara pours infectiously onto the page. We are influenced by her, just as much as Effie and Henry are, such is the mastery with which Chip Cheek writes.

Cheek challenges the spontaneity of youth and the reckless abandon often made, to the detriment of relationships. He tests these relationships under the strain of familial pressure, marital obligations and societal barriers. When we are exposed to responsibility and adulthood before we are ready, what do we sacrifice? A challenging stereotype of 1950s men is explored through Henry and his counterparts, while the role of the woman, for which I held so many hopes (particularly in the case of Alma and Clara) was disappointingly addressed, as such strong figures were nothing but coloured glass, transparent and beautiful. The ending of the novel was my least favourite part as it felt rushed and unnecessary. I think the ending would have benefitted from spoon feeding the reader less and trusting their imagination more.

I won’t forget this novel in a hurry and I suspect it is one I will return to again and again for the magnificence with which the animalistic desires of the forbidden merged with the mundane consistency of daily life. Reality was suspended throughout and the pages became a playground of sorts for the characters. Chip Cheek acknowledges our desire for change; he explores the resistance of the self in the relationship when faced with a wall of temptation and freedom; he challenges freedom itself and the choices we make in search of freedom from not our circumstances, but from ourselves. Beautiful, elegant, ferocious, bold, devastating; it is a feast and an experience.

(c) Dymphna Nugent

Order your copy online here.