Summer at Seastone

SUMMER AT SEASTONE will be published in hardback and as an ebook in January 2023. The novel is about fresh starts and female creativity. The four central characters, Emma, Bea, Marissa and Tamar, weave in and out of each other’s lives, but the hamlet of Seastone on the Suffolk coast is the place where they come together each summer to renew the bonds of friendship.

It often seems to me that women’s lives are more disrupted than those of men. There are the biological interruptions – puberty, pregnancy and childbirth, menopause – all of which sweep through like a tempest and earthquake combined, leaving mental and physical alterations in their wake. Then there are the societal demands and obstacles. In the period in which my new novel is set, the 1970s and 80s, few concessions were made to women who wanted to return to work after having children. It wasn’t easy for a professional to work part-time, and in that pre-internet age there was very little distance working. Some careers still had age bars. There were far fewer nurseries to care for young children.

My husband often went away on business, so I had to fashion a career that would fit in with looking after my family. When my boys were young, I wrote only while they were at school. I found the long summer holidays, when it was hard to progress a novel at all, frustrating. Still, I remember the thrill of making a fresh start. I remember the great pleasure I felt in buying a smart outfit so that I could go to London and have lunch with my very first editor.

In SUMMER AT SEASTONE my character, Bea, knows all about fresh starts. She’s had a lot of them. As the story developed, I became very fond of Bea. No matter how heart-wrenching the knockbacks, she finds the courage to start again and strike out on a new path. And she never loses her warmth and openness or her capacity to love.

Marissa is a gifted seamstress and fashion designer. Her talent gives her a skill, an income, an identity. A refuge, too; her work gives her a place where she can express herself, where she can most be herself. All of us, at one time or another, reinvent ourselves, perhaps changing the way we look – a new outfit, a different hairstyle, a bright lipstick to give you a boost. Or we might move house or take a new career direction. Marissa goes several steps further, and hers is the most extreme reinvention in SUMMER AT SEASTONE.

For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by the lives and work of women artists of the first half of the twentieth century. The compromises they made, the sacrifices, too, as they wrestled with the conflict between their work and their love for and obligations to their families. In self-portraits by painters such as Hilda Carline, Dod Procter and Gwen John, the artists look out at the world with an unflinching gaze, as if they’re aware of being in the vanguard of an era in which women’s lives will change beyond recognition. While I was researching SUMMER AT SEASTONE, I came across a self-portrait by Jean Cooke, an artist I had not previously heard of. Cooke was a very talented painter, who married the artist, John Bratby. Bratby limited the number of hours she was ‘allowed’ to paint and sometimes painted over her canvases. In 1977, they divorced. From her self-portrait, Cooke looks out at us, wide-eyed and a little dishevelled, trapped by the curtained window, the ill-lit street and the walls of the house. Her gaze is both challenging and disturbing.

My character, Tamar, is also a painter, who grows up in much the same era as Jean Cooke. She is married to Morgan Romilly, a printmaker and watercolourist. Morgan’s career thrives while Tamar’s flounders. Morgan has his beach-side studio where his family know not to interrupt him; Tamar sets up her easel in the living room and works with the children under foot. Later, when they’re older, she wraps up jam sandwiches in greaseproof paper and sends them out to play on the beach so she can get some painting time.

Though Tamar and Morgan’s daughter, Emma, is also a gifted artist, she has no intention of following in her parents’ footsteps. She believes that path is not for her. She’s seen at close hand the accommodations Tamar has had to make, and she’s also all too aware that the art establishment routinely overlooks women artists.

SUMMER AT SEASTONE is about friendships formed when children are tiny, when lives are shaped by their needs and demands. These are friendships that can last a lifetime. I first met my friend Rosie in 1984, at a meeting of the NHR (National Housewives’ Register). A few weeks later, out for a walk with my three sons, I ran into her again. Our youngest children, still in their pushchairs, were of much the same age. Tom and Dom now have families of their own. They’re still friends.

Rosie invited us back to her house; not long after that, she introduced me to her friend, Viv. I have photos from that era of the three of us: me, Rosie and Viv, sitting in my garden in front of a half-built conservatory. Rosie and I were both married to engineers, and our houses often had projects in need of completion. We’re wearing the light-coloured, drop-waisted summer dresses that were in style in the mid-eighties. Our older children are at primary school, the little ones at playgroup, so we have a spare couple of hours to drink coffee and talk, to catch up in the sun. It’s a time when we’re starting up new careers or returning to former ones or studying for qualifications. We talk about anything and everything and never run out of things to say. Once, early on in my career, I express a lack of confidence in the novel I’m writing. Rosie challenges me. How can I expect anyone else to take my work seriously if I myself don’t show belief in it? She’s right, and it’s a valuable lesson I never forget.

Years pass. We three water each other’s plants when we go on holiday, look after each other’s children when the need arises. When a child has a triumph or disaster, we celebrate or console. When the mortgage rate shoots up to 15% (thankfully very briefly) Rosie and I shriek at each other down the phone. We share heartbreaks, hopes and humiliations, and we share the slings and arrows that assail women – postnatal depression, lumps in the breast and, as the decades go on and we get older, the irritations of hot flushes and creaking joints. Our children grow up, two of us move house, but we keep in touch. We see each other less often, but when we do, the conversation, laughter and affection are the same as always.

Rosie died of cancer in January 2020 following a short illness. Several weeks later, as the pandemic gathered its sinister pace, the country closed down. SUMMER AT SEASTONE began as a glimmer of an idea in the late summer of that year, at a time when we were cautiously emerging from the first lockdown, wearing masks and socially distancing and ‘eating out to help out.’ None of my four central characters is based on Rosie, but all have a dash of her warmth, humour and creative curiosity. I wanted to write a novel that celebrated female friendship, that hinted at how those friendships we make when we’re young women can gleam like a thread of gold throughout our lives. I hope you enjoy it.