Bad decisions make good stories, and in Chip Cheek’s Cape May, Effie and Henry make many bad decisions during their honeymoon. When Effie and Henry arrive in Cape May, New Jersey in late September 1957, they are initially disappointed by the sleepiness of the town. It is not as exciting as Effie remembered it when she vacationed there during the summer as a young girl. However, they soon meet Clara, an old acquaintance of Effie’s who has grown up to become a glamorous socialite and a happy hostess, as well as married to a rich older man. That man obligingly returns home to do business quite early in the novel, leaving Clara alone to have fun with her lover Max. Max’ younger sister Alma also stays. Clara folds Henry and Effie into her group, and that is when the nice, if staid, honeymoon takes a turn.
At the beginning of Cape May, Effie and Henry are 18 and 20, respectively, a naïve small-town couple who know very little about sex or life. By the end, thanks to Clara, Max, and Alma, they will have learned much more than they ever expected. Money, alcohol, and time flow quite freely in Clara’s world, and Effie and Henry allow themselves to enjoy it all. Clara and Max have very few inhibitions, which initially liberates the shy young newlyweds. But when Effie contracts a bad cold and uses the bed only to sweat and sleep for a few nights, Henry faces temptation.
Chip Cheek captures the wonderful “place to ourselves” feeling of a tourist town without the summer tourists beautifully. The late-1950s details are also nicely drawn. He makes it clear that this is a highly atypical time in the lives of Effie and Henry, and that they were woefully underprepared for it by their adolescence in small-town Georgia. The sex scenes, from the newlyweds’ initial fumblings to their increasing experience, hold very little back and may be a bit too graphic for some. Some readers may also be offended by decisions that the characters make. However, even in the sleepiest little towns and the most prudish eras, good stories have always been told. Cheek tells a terrific one in Cape May. It is, quite literally, perfect beach reading.