Sunday, December 5, 2021
Dec. 5, 2021

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Novel offers journey on seaside vacation


These days, I’m often finding that I’d like to go someplace else. But, as going someplace else literally would be a lot of trouble, I’m mostly doing it through the pages of a book — where I can travel long distances and be home by dinner.

Here, appropriately timed for armchair reading, a newly published book that took me on enjoyable journeys to times and/or places far away. Happy reading.

“The Fortnight in September” by R.C. Sherriff (Scribner)

I thought I was fairly well versed in charming English novels set in Times Gone By, but this sweet tale by a British writer known for his World War I memoir (“Journey’s End”) and later work in Hollywood (“Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “The Invisible Man”) was a new one to me — and a delight. A 1930s bestseller republished on the occasion of its 90th anniversary, it’s the story of the Stevenses, a suburban London family of five who every year look forward to their two-week holiday by the sea. We follow Mr. and Mrs. Stevens and their children, 19-year-old Mary, 17-year-old Dick and 10-year-old Ernie, through every detail and step of the holiday: preparation, arrival, duration, return. Mrs. Stevens faces her own anxiety about travel; the older children dream of taking trips on their own; Mr. Stevens, while walking in the bracing air, considers the man he might have been.

This description may sound a little dry, and indeed you shouldn’t read “A Fortnight in September” expecting anything particularly dramatic to happen, as nothing does — except, perhaps, the gentle breath of life itself. There’s a comforting sameness to this holiday, which has taken place in the same modest boardinghouse for 20 years, and the Stevenses find tension in anticipation of well-known challenges: the flurry of changing trains, the process of renting a bathing hut, the right level of polite familiarity with the landlady. I found myself charmed by this immersion into another life, full of astute observations indicating that maybe things haven’t changed all that much in 90 years. The narration notes, for example, the awkwardness upon first arriving at one’s destination, when “you are still a little shy and embarrassed amongst the other holidaymakers, who look so thoroughly at home.”

And Sherriff’s uncanny way of finding universality in an unremarkable moment is often deeply touching.

Excuse me while I go plan a seaside vacation.