Dear Ms. Hart,
Bess Walsh needs time away from her unhappy marriage. She finds it at the beach house she inherited from her parents. There, in the water, Bess fantasizes about Nick, the boy she loved and lost twenty years before. She touches herself and soon she feels Nick touching her. The lovemaking is intense, unforgettable.
But the next morning Bess is shocked to see that her fantasy lover hasn’t evaporated with the night. Nick is still there, and though physically he hasn’t aged a day since they parted company twenty years earlier, he feels solid and corporeal, and has an emotional maturity he did not have back in those days.
Bess has missed Nick so badly that she does not want to question his reappearance or interrogate his twenty year old disappearance. She knows it must involve something that she won’t like hearing. Instead, she drowns the questions in touch, in passionate sex that makes the rest of the world fade away.
Bess and Nick’s past is revealed in chapters that alternate with the present day storyline. Back then, Bess was a twenty year old college student who came to Bethany Beach to earn money during the summer. The beach house belonged to her grandparents, but to less well-to-do kids like her friend Missy, it made Bess seem like a snob.
At a party at Missy’s house, Bess was attracted to a boy named Nick, whom Missy told her was gay. Like Missy, Nick didn’t have much money, nor did he have much of a family. He was a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Although back home she had a boyfriend of four years, Andy, Bess had a strong suspicion that Andy was cheating on her. She described Andy to Nick as her “sort of” boyfriend.
When Nick learned that Missy lied to Bess about his sexual orientation, he proposed that Nick and Bess pretend there was something between them to get back at Missy. Bess agreed, but the game became more than that to her. Even after being warned about Nick’s bad reputation, she couldn’t help being drawn to him.
Now, twenty years later, the attraction is just as potent. Bess only leaves the house to get groceries, and spends most of her time in bed with Nick. When, on one shopping trip, Bess stops at Sugarland, the caramel corn shop where she worked back in the old days, she’s surprised to find that Eddie, who was an awkward, geeky boy with a crush on her back then, now owns the business. Bess tells Eddie that her teenage sons will be coming to stay with her soon, and he suggests that they can work at Sugarland. But these intrusions of the real world are forgotten when Bess returns home to Nick’s arms.
Is Bess losing her mind, and is Nick a manifestation of her imagination? Or is Nick real, at least as real as a spirit can be? Why is the past haunting Bess, and is it possible for her to let go of it? What will happen to Bess’s marriage? What will happen to her relationship with Nick when her teenage sons arrive? And what was it that happened twenty years ago?
These questions are answered slowly over the course of this unusual book, so I will not spoil such discoveries for readers.
I enjoyed Deeper and its two sympathetic protagonists. Both Bess and Nick make mistakes, but both of them are vulnerable, each caring more than they have the courage to show the other for a long time. Knowing there was not going to be a happily ever after for this couple made the book bittersweet and poignant.
Deeper is not a perfect book — the past storyline took a long time to grab a hold of me and to become as interesting as the present day story, since the more mature Nick and Bess had suffered more and therefore had more at stake in their relationship. Also, there was a lot of sex in the present day storyline, and sometimes it felt like too much of a good thing because their emotional relationship interested me more than their physical one.
On another, less significant note, I realize that this may seem like an idiosyncratic nitpick, but I was frequently distracted by Bess’s name. I’m of Bess’s generation and I have never known anyone my age who goes by the name Bess. Beth, Liz, even Betsy, yes. But Bess? No. It sounds grandmotherly to me, and the fact that in the past storyline, none of the other kids her age ever commented on her name seemed odd, when I kept wanting to substitute “Beth” in my mind.
But I was won over by the book’s freshness and by the compassion I felt for both Bess and Nick. Their longing for one another was so intense that they wanted to ignore the reality of their situation rather than face what they had lost. While I didn’t understand all the choices Bess had made during the time she and Nick were apart, I wanted her to find happiness somehow. And Nick was even more vulnerable and appealing. How I wished I could turn back the clock for him.
As I was reading, I could almost imagine Deeper as a movie. I could almost see the beach house, the water, and Sugarland. The vivid detail is one of your great strengths as a writer. The way the characters in your books feel real to me, even in a surreal situation like this one, is another.
I kept wishing for an ending in which an older, living Nick reunited with Bess. I knew that such an ending would have been a copout for this book, and that I could expect something more realistic than that from you. When the ending came, it was the right, appropriate ending, and though it was bittersweet, it also satisfied me. B-/B for Deeper.