When the details of Ann Brashares’ latest novel, The Whole Thing Together (Delacorte Press), began to crystalize in her mind, she knew the beach house at its center required a very distinct location. The place needed beauty, history, nostalgia, great wealth, and, as she describes it, the sort of endemic pressure that only comes with such wealth and the changes it brings to an otherwise bucolic paradise.
Indeed, the Hamptons fits brilliantly for her tale of broken marriage, deep family ties, first love and loss. In stores today, April 25, The Whole Thing Together tells the story of Sasha and Ray, teens who have spent their entire lives summering at the same Georgica Pond beach house, even sleeping in the same bed, but never at the same time. It turns out Sasha’s dad was once married to Ray’s mom, but the couple broke in a bitter divorce and neither would give up the house. Now with new families, the parents split their time in East Hampton, so Sasha and Ray never knew of each other—until they meet as teenagers and fall in love. Don’t worry, they’re not related by blood.
“I was trying to think of a really magnificent and kind of old—at least by this country’s standards—established summer place that was in proximity to the ocean, but the landscape was really magnificent,” Brashares says, describing how the Hamptons came to play a role in The Whole Thing Together.
“I was thinking about a few other places, maybe like a Nantucket or a Martha’s Vineyard,” but the novelist, best known for her Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, has history with the Hamptons. Brashares spent a long stretch of summers staying in a “crazy house” her in-laws would rent on East Hampton’s Georgica Pond—much like the one she describes in the book.
“It was a big property and a weird, kind of wonky house in this old WASPy family. They would rent it for the season and my husband [painter Jacob Collins] and I, starting from soon after I graduated from college, or even right around that time, through to when we had kids, we’d go many weekends; most weekends,” Brashares recalls, noting later that the house in her book bears a strong resemblance to the place she stayed all those years ago.
“It’s on Georgica Pond, beautiful lawns running down to the pond, the dock, great big old trees and the layout of the swimming pool and the pool house, and also kind of the wonkiness of the house—a lot of driftwood wired to the walls and decoys and ducks, and a bar in every room—honest to God,” she says. “It had that 50s/60s bon vivant styling, which was hilarious. It’s not the house 100 percent, but it’s a good bit of it, I would say it’s a good 60 to 70 percent of it.”
Of course the South Fork has changed significantly over the 20 years since her first son, Sam, was born. She now has four children in total.
“I came to love the place and hate certain aspects of the place, but be in wonder at the whole production of it,” Brashares says of the Hamptons. “I had a lot of affectionate, nostalgic, weird feelings toward it. That’s my background there—having known it well, but not knowing it in a very contemporary way.”
She returned to soak in the scene while writing The Whole Thing Together, and a few local haunts, or versions of them, make appearances in its pages. “I think Dreesen’s makes an appearance, the Red Horse Market is thinly disguised, the farm stand—there’s a farm stand we used to go to, I think it was in Sagaponack, that plays a role,” Brashares says. “I do try to evoke the place in some ways, but I would say the action is centered in this house and that kind of landscape,” she adds, before pointing again to the quick but “marked change” in wealth and real estate as a primary inspiration.
While The Whole Thing Together is labeled in the Teen & Young Adult Fiction category—and already a #1 Best Seller—Brashares says it should reach beyond that YA readership. “It’s unconventional in that way, in that it’s really kind of a family story more than a story about the teenage kids. I sent it to the publisher and I said, ‘I don’t know what this is, I don’t know where this fits or what you want to do with it,’ and they came back and said, ‘It is unconventional, but we think it’s a YA, hopefully with the possibility of appealing to a much larger demographic.’”
According to Brashares, her Traveling Pants books had plenty of crossover, attracting preteens, teens and adults, mostly women, as old as 90. “I think it’d be weird to say I want teenagers exclusively to read this,” she says while also acknowledging, “I’m really wanting to explore this particular perch on life’s ladder.”
Of course, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants became a series that followed its characters into adulthood, but Brashares didn’t write The Whole Thing Together with sequels in mind.
“I didn’t envision it that way. I thought this is, at this point, the story that I want to tell,” she explains. “That being said, I tried to create a world that was compelling and that I was interested to spend time in—hopefully a wide and complex enough world that I could see going back to it, but it doesn’t need it, I don’t feel. But it might be fun to at some point.”
As for returning to the Hamptons?
“It’s a changing of pace. It’s just a beautiful place and there are things about it I love, and I have real nostalgic ties to it. The combination of ocean and landscape I really do think is among the most beautiful in the world,” Brashares says. “I miss that green—green, ancient, big trees—you know, that lush ancient feeling of the South Fork. It was fun to go back. It was fun to see it. It was fun to see the particular…you know the light. But it’s sort of fancier and more pressurized than ever, which I was sort of expecting too.”
Like a sequel to her new book, it sounds like we’ll have to wait and see.
The Whole Thing Together by Ann Brashares is available at booksellers everywhere starting today, April 25, 2017.