Set against the background of World War II, The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach is a love story with the faintest Jewish echo. The novel by Pam Jenoff centers on Adelia Monteforte, a young Jewish teen who, suddenly and unceremoniously, is sent from her home in Italy by loving parents who are desperate to protect her from the war that is advancing in Europe.
Adelia, called Addie for most of the novel, lands in America, in the Philadelphia home of her Aunt Bess and Uncle Meyer, a childless couple she has never met. Though they are kind to her, Addie finds a truer home with the Connellys, a big and boisterous Irish-Catholic family. The Connellys’ summer home is next door to the rooming house where Addie’s aunt and uncle rent rooms each summer.
The entire Connelly family sweeps Addie up into their lives, despite the fact that she’s a girl, and a foreign one at that.
Though she doesn’t understand it herself, Addie seems to answer a need each member of the Connelly family has.
Their acceptance becomes her ticket to fitting into America.
Addie is young, just 16 when she arrives in America. A generous reader could fairly ascribe her tendency to avoid difficult emotional encounters to her youth and to the trauma of having been sent away from her parents without any preparation for her new life. Echoing her original escape from Italy, she runs away.
A lot. And when she flees, it is always an impetuous act.
Despite the Jewish identity that endangered her life in Italy, and the traditional Jewish lifestyle of her aunt and uncle, Addie falls hard for Charlie, the oldest of the four Catholic Connelly brothers.
On Thanksgiving night, the night that Addie and Charlie are planning to announce their engagement, a tragedy in the Connelly family changes everything.
After sleep-walking through the rest of her senior year, Addie’s decision to leave Philadelphia for Washington the day after graduation is undertaken without a moment of forethought or a proper goodbye to the aunt and uncle who had taken her in. “I looked west past the shop awnings toward the clock tower above city hall. A few blocks farther, the bus station loomed. I knew then that I was going. Somewhere. Away. From. Here.”
She lands on her feet in Washington and quickly snags a job with the Washington Post. After a disquieting encounter with Charlie in Washington, Addie abruptly flees again, this time for London, working for the Washington Post’s London bureau.
In a relationship that spans several years, four cities and two countries, 3,500 miles apart, Addie and Charlie progress toward and withdraw from each other again and again. Misunderstandings, poor timing and a heartbreaking tragedy mar their love for one another. The reader can’t help but wonder how differently things might have played out if cellphones has been invented in the 1940s.
The London chapters are set in 1943, after the intense bombing of London known as the Blitz of 1940-41. The scenes of occasional bombings, and the characters’ desperate need to run for cover, will feel familiar to Israeli readers.
Jenoff fictionalizes the famous niece of Winston Churchill, names her Claire instead of Clarissa, and makes her an important part of Addie’s life in London.
Theodore (Teddy) White, a roguish Washington Post correspondent, is both Addie’s boss and her British love interest.
White is the most complex and interesting character in the entire novel. “My mum is Jewish,” Teddy said. “But I keep it quiet.”
Addie is a Jewish refugee from Italy.
The novel is set in the years 1941 to 1944.
World War II, and its impact on American and British citizens, is important to the flow of the story. Despite these circumstances, for the most part, Jenoff holds the Holocaust at arm’s length.
There is a single scene in the book of Addie communicating in Yiddish to a non-Jewish refugee from Poland about what he saw there.
“‘They were forcing Jews in a truck, a regular delivery truck, you know, one that might deliver boxes to the store.’ He was talking fast now, telling me more than he should in the rush of emotion.
‘They were putting them – men, women and children – in the back and connecting something to the exhaust pipe.’ My pulse thudded in dreadful anticipation.
‘There were screams and then there were none.’” This is the most graphic passage in the novel and the only scene that offers any details about the Holocaust. Although set during World War II, with the war as background, this is decidedly not a Holocaust book.
The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach is a novel about Adelia Monteforte and the men in her life. Although she does not appear to have exceptional physical attributes or particularly dazzling personality traits, Jenoff’s main character is imbued with an extraordinary ability to attract men who are willing to take crazy chances for her. Even Winston Churchill’s niece Claire is jealous of Adelia Monteforte’s effortless success with men.
The novel’s final chapters come as a surprise, as Addie recognizes that she left something important in her past that needs to be reclaimed.