Two troubled women’s lives intersect across the decades in Jaeger’s ‘Boardwalk Summer’
By Lou Fancher
Historical fiction writer Meredith Jaeger likes to meticulously plot a novel’s structure with Post-it notes and cast its protagonist as a “bad ass” heroine.
The 36-year-old Bay Area native also prefers to write about locations in which she has lived. While remaining resolute on key points of a story, she’s flexible and team-oriented enough to change her mind. She’s willing, for example, to replace a young woman warrior with a more complex, older alternative or find unexpected interest in the glamour and dark underbelly of Hollywood when prompted by a trusted agent or editor.
So it’s no surprise that Jaeger’s new novel, “Boardwalk Summer” (William Morrow, $15.99, 384 pages), features two bold women—one named Mari—and is set in Santa Cruz in 2007 and 1940s Hollywood.
Nor is it startling to find Jaeger’s well-researched story carries dark themes of domestic violence, sexual assault, gender and racial discrimination. Ultimately, but not completely, the female characters whose lives are connected by adversity and separated by decades in alternating chapters claim semi-realistic victory and independence from their troubled histories
Jaeger’s debut novel, “The Dressmaker’s Dowry,” was set in 1876 and present day San Francisco. Based on the lifestyle of immigrant dressmakers, it became a USA Today best-seller and bumped Jaeger from tech startup employee/part-time writer to full-time novelist. She has a bachelor’s degree in modern literature from UC Santa Cruz and lives in Alameda with her husband, William, their nearly 2-year-old daughter and Bernie, an English bulldog.
“I wanted an English name more uncommon than Winston, so chose Bernard,” she says in an interview from her home. “It didn’t stick, because he’s such a goofball. We call him Bernie.”
The story of the evolution of Bernie’s name combines history, humor, practicality, bulldog determination and flexibility.
Similar elements infuse the life and character of “Boardwalk” protagonist Marisol (Mari) Cruz. The 26-year-old single mother transitions from put-upon waitress to a job at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History that has her leading a crusade to save a historic gazebo. Along the way, she discovers long-buried city history and her family’s connection to Violet Harcourt, a young woman crowned Miss California in 1940. The beauty contest queen declined her crown, set her sights on becoming a Hollywood movie star, but months later returned in defeat from Los Angeles to a dangerous marriage, then disappeared without a trace … until Mari finds a black-and-white photograph in her grandfather’s old leather trunk and picks up the trail.
Jaeger in her childhood read books like “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” with her mother. On her own, she preferred creepier books. “Some were too scary, and some were sad but made me angry,” she says. “(Jean Craighead George’s) ‘Julie of the Wolves,’ when a wolf died, and the room was stained with red — that stuck in my mind.” It was historical fiction and graphic novels that intrigued a young Jaeger: Lois Lowry’s “Number the Stars,” cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” Brian Jacques’ “Redwall” series and others.
Today, when not reading for a book she’s writing, she gravitates to the impeccable research in historical fiction by Kristina McMorris (“Letters from Home,” “The Edge of Lost”) or self-help nonfiction like that of Gabby Bernstein and memoirs written by women. “I’m just not interested in men’s experience. They’re the patriarchy, and they’ve been given their time,” she says. I like to read something I can relate to: women overcoming hardship have fascinating stories to tell.”
Jaeger knows hardship herself. “My dad died when I was 14, and I was very close to him,” she says. “He was a healthy person, then had a brain tumor and in three months, he was gone. I remember failing P.E. because I didn’t care to get dressed, go to class. I remember thinking, What is the point of anything?”
Finding solid ground in college, she continued to write, by age 30 completing two novels (never published) and sending out multiple queries to agents. “I accumulated 250 rejection letters with my first novel. I went into ‘Dressmakers’ with that hardship. Even that book, my agent didn’t take right away. I did many revisions. Then, my editor said, ‘It’s too 1996, it won’t work.’ So I rewrote half the novel — without being daunted.”
Jaeger says she has learned to “kill her darlings” and that “it’s not all about you.” Even so, satisfying an editorial team doesn’t mean giving up all control. “With Dressmakers, I knew the ending wouldn’t be strictly happy. If anyone had asked me to change that, I would’ve said no. ‘Boardwalk’s’ themes of domestic abuse and a woman’s escape from violence were important. Because of that, I definitely wanted to give Mari a happy ending, and I did. She’s already gone through so much; I just wanted to give her some happiness in life.”
For Jaeger, happiness comes in hours spent at the Alameda public library, pouring through digital newspaper archives and old maps, searching archival ads on Pinterest for historic clothing styles and reading oral histories to pick up authentic language from an era, country or region. Constant revising she finds vital. “Writing is never wasted. Practice improves you, like being a piano or soccer player.”
Jaeger’s next book is set in 1923 New York and 1945 San Francisco. “It’s about the Ziegfeld Follies. I’ll be reliant on what I’ve read about New York, as opposed to growing up there.” Jaeger wants it to be darker than her first two novels. “I enjoy crying. I like sad movies. You want readers to experience emotions. I love it when people tweet me and say, ‘Your book made me ugly cry.’”