Writers aren’t often at a loss for words. When Stony Brook author Judy Blundell finished her 2008 young adult novel What I Saw and How I Lied, she’d already written scores of books and appeared on multiple best-seller lists. But she was completely unprepared for the call telling her she’d won the National Book Award. “The president of the National Book Foundation calls you,” she remembered. “I was silent for so long that he thought I’d fainted. He had to say ‘Judy?’ It was the most stunned I’ve ever been.”
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At the same time that she was working on that book, Blundell was also writing her first novel for adults. “I had to write it in the corners and margins of my professional life. The first scrawled note about it was probably about 15 years ago.” The result is The High Season, a Gatsby-esque tale of haves and have-nots centered on fictional people and real places on Long Island’s East End. Blundell frames it within the art world, which she knows well through her husband Neil Watson, executive director of the Long Island Museum.
Blundell was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Queens. The life of a writer and wife of a museum professional has taken her around the country, but her parents lived in Manhasset and then Northport, so Long Island always felt like home. Five years ago, she and her family moved to Stony Brook. “I spent several summers of my childhood on a cabin cruiser with my family, skipping around the Long Island Sound from the coast of Connecticut to the North Fork, and the memory of those summers was part of the ‘deep background’ of research…brackish water, salt breezes, raw clams, an orange sunset on navy sea.
I was grateful to have that in my memory banks, my absolute love of the East End, a sense of place and home that I gave to my [protagonist] Ruthie.”
The High Season goes beyond light summer fare. It’s a bit like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous but with Jane Austen’s type of biting wit and keen eye toward the human heart as an undercurrent.
Blundell cites Austen as an inspiration in both life and art. “Like most women writers, I’ve learned to write in a lot of different places…I think about Jane Austen sometimes. She wrote in the parlor, and she’d just kind of cover up the work if somebody came too close. I’m like that.”
The novel is set in Orient, where she rented a house for a month in the winter and a month in the summer to gain an understanding of the place. Throughout the book, she keeps the Hamptons and South Fork just offstage, waiting to enter. “What I’m writing about is a place on the cusp of great change. Part of it really is Orient, and part of it is an imagined Orient. It’s a metaphor as well as a village. The High Season is about the impact of wealth on a small community…And specifically about a woman who loses everything in the course of a few summer weekends and then makes exactly the wrong choice to get it back…Every novel has to revolve around the wrong choice.”
The High Season’s protagonist is a museum director who starts, on Memorial Day, to notice her home, family and career slipping away. She’s surrounded by smiling people with acquisitive eyes and envious hearts. Like the gunmetal waves with menacing white teeth offshore, it’s a tide she can’t change, but ultimately transcends. “Your enemies are not your enemies forever. Time passes. Things change. They suffer losses deeper than yours. And you realize they are as befuddled as you at the way life goes,” Blundell has her think.
The mysterious communication from one soul to some other unknown soul in some other place at some other time, which Blundell has described as “magic made of paper and pencil dust” is the core of her life’s work. What she’s trying to communicate is that “life can be very difficult and we can make mistakes. But we can always redeem ourselves…I think story connects us to the world and activates our empathy muscle. We connect to other ways of seeing, other cultures, other ways that people can grow up or be beaten down. Or rise up.”