It's July, which means summer has come to San Diego. The May grays have been swept away and June gloom is a goner. But, if you're like me, the sunny days make you a little sad because now you no longer have an excuse to stay inside and read. I have the perfect antidote for all that sun and fun: a novel full of awful beach people doing horrible things to each other.
With The Invaders, Karolina Waclawiak welcomes us to Little Neck Cove Yacht & Country Club, a beach community approximately an hour outside of New York City where wealthy retirees on the wrong side of 60 spend their days sailing, playing tennis and drinking the day away.
Our guides to this enclave are Cheryl, a woman who grew up poor and fell into an unhappy marriage to a rich widower; and Teddy, a lifelong problem child in his mid-twenties who has just about used up all of his charm. Cheryl is married to Teddy's father, which no one in Little Neck Cove is particularly happy about.
The woman Cheryl is trying to replace took a drunken spill off the docks and drowned. What should have been a minor embarrassment to be laughed at as the seasons turned over was a tragedy that "brought the community together and kept [Cheryl] out."
When Jeffrey brought Cheryl to this outpost of wealth and right-wing paranoia she struggled, and while there are those, like Teddy, who will always see Cheryl as an outsider, she has done an admirable job of fitting in. Now that her marriage is failing, she wonders how she fooled herself into thinking it mattered.
At a party where people say things like "The shitty economy is bringing back cohabitation" and think that bad things only happen to people on Dateline, Cheryl has something like an epiphany:
"I looked at all of them, in their mid-sixties or so now, and tried to imagine just how wild they had been. I thought about the things that had happened in this room and how it was haunted with other people's regrets."
Jeffrey and Teddy are vain, self-aggrandizing boy-men with sociopathic tendencies. While Jeffrey is a lost cause, Cheryl recognizes it might not be too late for Teddy. Both characters are defined by their absent mothers, whom they idolized for all the wrong reasons.
"When I was a teenager, my mother used to say, 'Men only love you when you're fertile, even if they don't want you to have their child.' She'd looked at me, 16 and glowing, and said, 'They only want you. They want to suck out your youth. I don't have any more to give.' I'd told her that it wasn't true, that men came around for her all the time, but she'd just said, 'That isn't love.'"
It took Cheryl many years to recognize the wisdom of her mother's words. Even still, the image of her mother playing a role she wasn't suited for haunts her.
"She was always pacing and waiting for our father, but she looked so gentle floating back and forth, her nightgown billowing behind her with each step. Her heels would tap against the wood floor and hypnotize us with the sound—When our father stopped coming home, she took to waiting for other people's fathers."
After her father abandoned her, she struck out on her own. "I had to leave then, as our resentments became unbearable and the house became a tomb to everything we had lost." Now that Cheryl, too, is a woman who waits, it would be logical to assume that Cheryl fears falling prey to the same fate as her mother, but that's not the case. Instead she digs in and holds on.
One of the things that make Waclawiak's portraits of the rich and faithless so incisive is the wealth of secrets and unexpected twists in store for the reader. For instance, as Cheryl and Teddy's storylines converge, instead of becoming natural enemies, they enter a new phase of their relationship that is fraught with unspeakable tension. Cheryl regularly crosses the line from caretaker to enabler to something harder to define.
The Invaders is a masterful work of literary fiction with the pulse of a thriller and an ending that's right out of a pulp novel: lyrical yet unstintingly unsentimental and as pitiless as a sunburn on a cloudy day.