In her fourth novel, The Fifth of July, Kelly Simmons deftly explores the heartbreaking ambivalence of family life in upper-upper-middle-class America while also offering readers a classic page-turner in a style reminiscent of Agatha Christie.
At the heart of the novel is the Warner clan. Vacationing in their summer home on Nantucket, the Warners represent three generations of privilege. The family patriarch, Tripp Warner, is suffering from dementia, and his wife, Alice, is a closet anti-Semite who can’t stand the fact that their new neighbor is Jewish. Indeed, that their daughter, Caroline, suffered a sexual assault at the summer home in her youth seems not to bother the elder Warners so much as the fact that their new neighbor wants them to remove a widow’s walk from their roof in order to improve his view of the ocean. Caroline, meanwhile, is doing all she can to protect her preteen daughter from the predators who haunt the seemingly idyllic island. Within this largely dysfunctional context, Caroline’s husband, John, and brother, Tom, try in vain to maintain some modicum of normalcy, but their efforts are thwarted by the mysterious appearance of a Swastika on the front lawn and the increasingly erratic behavior of patriarch Tripp.
References to various shadowy events drive much of the novel. We know that something happened to Caroline when she was on the verge of adolescence, but we’re not sure what. We know that a tragedy or a crime is about to occur, but its exact nature remains unclear through much of the book. We can probably guess who cut the Swastika in the Warners’ lawn, but then we’re forced to guess and guess again. This constant guessing and second-guessing is what makes The Fifth of July a compelling read. Despite their cultivated outward shine, the characters are all so damaged that anything could have happened and anyone could have done it.