“Rich people behaving badly,” reads one description on the back of the newest novel by Elin Hilderbrand, Here’s to Us. Indeed this story includes a lot of that, but that description is incomplete: the book is a story about rich people (and formerly rich people) behaving badly, unpredictably, and inappropriately…but is also a story about a grieving family acting with kindness, love, and support. The end result is a wildly entertaining and utterly readable family drama with characters who seem so alive that even when they are “behaving badly” readers cannot help but become absorbed by their (sordid, flawed, sad) stories.
The novel focuses on members of the disjointed and dysfunctional extended Thorpe family, who despite decades of hatred and fighting have come together for one last weekend at the family home on Nantucket to spread the ashes of the novel’s deceased (but still very present) patriarch, Deacon Thorpe. Deacon was a wildly famous but deeply troubled celebrity chef, whose alcohol and drug addiction and philandering had caused his family heartache for years: “Deacon had carried a core of sorrow within in him. [His family] had never been able to rid him of his sadness. He became very successful and very popular but that hadn’t made his demons go away.” The first and last chapters of the novel serve as bookends of Deacon’s life on Nantucket: the opening tells of his first visit to the island with his father and the closing chapter tells of his last day on Nantucket, his last day alive.
In between these two chapters lie the complicated and messy stories of Deacon Thorpe and his wives and children, told from multiple points of view and from various times and places in their lives. The net result is an almost-full picture of a man who was trying to make a good life for himself and his family, without any idea how to do so.
On present day Nantucket, we meet Deacon’s two ex-wives, his widow, his three children, and his best friend who all have gathered to spread his ashes. The three women are mistrusting and jealous of one another; each tries to hold on to their good memories of a flawed man, but they all realize the good times are heavily tainted by his lies and misdeeds and the bad times are magnified by each other’s presence. We see the version of Deacon each woman remembers — how they fell in love, how their marriages began, and how they fell apart — and at times, we flashback to Deacon’s memories.
Also at the house are his two older children, who are remembering with longing the magical summers spent with their father in this summer home. Both are struggling to process their sorrow and manage the drama their mothers continue to concoct. Deacon’s daughter is bereft having lost a business partner and mentor, as well as a best friend and father. His son, struggling with his own demons, has chosen to stay too numb to feel any grief at all.
Adding to the tension of the weekend is the news, delivered by Deacon’s best friend, that all of the family’s money is gone: no more private schools, business investments, high-priced apartment rentals in New York City, and of course, no more beloved beach house. The weekend that was about saying goodbye to a man has also become about saying goodbye to the Island.
As badly as the characters in this book behave, we are allowed to see inside of each of their minds and hearts and learn that, underneath all of the drama, they are all aching for love. As always, Hilderbrand gives us such full-bodied characters, filled with such capacity for goodness and cruelty, that we cannot help but be mesmerized by their tales. I am a huge fan of all her books — I have read every single one, several more than once — and this book does not disappoint readers: everything we have come to love about her books, and more, fills the pages of Here’s to Us.