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Why The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach Is My Homecoming
by Pam Jenoff
Though none of my work is autobiographical, I have come to believe after eight (!) novels that some books are just inherently more personal to write than others. For me, this has never been more true than writing The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach. Though I never set out to write it that way, and I didn’t know it until after the book was finished, but my new book is in many senses a homecoming.
Readers may be surprised to learn that The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach is not a new project for me. Rather it is a manuscript I started almost 20 yeas ago. I was living in Europe at the time; I was in my early 20s, alone and halfway around the world from my family. (And this was before cellphones and the internet so I really was quite alone over there.) In the solitude of living remotely and alone, I realized consciously for the first time what I had known all along: that I wanted to be a writer. So I began a story about Adelia, a young girl who goes to the beach for the summer and meets a family with four sons vacationing next door. (On some level I think I was inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, with the boy Laurie living next door to Jo and her three sisters.) For many months, I struggled with the manuscript – I had no English speaking peer group of writers and no way to connect with writing resources back home. I tried to publish it and failed. Ultimately I put it in a drawer and forgot all about it.
Only I didn’t forget. A few years ago, I pulled it out again. The language, though unpolished and nearly two decades old, leapt out and grabbed me, still ringing fresh and true. I knew there was still a story there worth telling. So I developed the concept, set it during the Second World War, and made the families in the book hail from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. But it was not just a homecoming for the manuscript – working with my own words from a lifetime ago was like having a conversation with my younger self and I could see who I had been and how far I had come since then.
The other way in which The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach is a homecoming is the sense of place. Two of the book’s major settings are South Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Each has particular resonance and meaning for me. My mom grew up in South Philadelphia in the 1940s and it was so much fun to “research” by speaking with her, listening to the stories of her childhood (many of which I had not heard before) and having her proof my work.
Equally joyous was setting the story at the shore. My dad’s family is from Atlantic City and my grandparents and great grandparents owned hotels and restaurants there in the 1930s and 40s. I summered at the shore as a girl until my grandmother passed and her beach house was lost to us forever. (Looking back I think some of the losses I felt as a young girl are mirrored in some of Addie’s own losses.) I loved the research for this part of the book, which included going to the shore, driving the roads and digging into the library archives, a piece of my own past even more dear to me now that my dad is gone.
Addie’s story is not my story but crafting it has been one of the most meaningful projects of my career because of the parts of my own past it has enabled me to explore. Thank you for joining me on my journey home.