May 21, 2015 at 09:13 PM EDT

The Rocks

Current Status
In Season
Peter Nichols
Riverhead Books
We gave it an A-

The Spanish island of Majorca sounds like paradise: a dreamy seaside idyll of sunbaked villas, dusky olive groves, and bougainvillea-scented breezes set deep in the languid Mediterranean. But there is trouble even in paradise, of course—the kind that smart, sexy summer lit is invariably made of.

The Rocks opens with a disastrous run-in between Lulu and Gerald, two octogenarian British expats who have somehow largely managed to avoid each other since the dissolution of their brief, mysterious marriage some 60 years before. Why is Lulu, the beautiful ivory-haired owner of beloved local inn Villa los Roques (“The Rocks” of the title), still so furious, and what is Gerald so desperate to set right with her?

Those questions won’t be answered until the final pages of Peter Nichols’ richly imagined family saga, whose chapters unfold in reverse, like an intricately fit series of narrative nesting dolls. As the book works backward from 2005 to 1948, the estranged duo’s parallel stories begin to fill in: Lulu long ago left her second husband, with whom she has a son named Luc, for the boho social whirl of the inn and a series of libertine love affairs. Widower Gerald, settled a few rutted roads away but a world apart, keeps much quieter company, doting on his daughter Aegina and grandson Charlie and getting by on modest publishing royalties and the small-press olive oil he bottles. But Luc and Aegina, it turns out, have their own tangled history—one that has nothing to do with their parents’ decades-long animus, even though it’s curdled to the point where they’ve become strangers too. Their relationship is the one that ultimately forms the heart of the novel, winding from modern-day London through Parisian arrondissements and the souks of ’70s Morocco all the way back to the Majorcan surf they splashed in together as toddlers.

Nichols (A Voyage for Madmen) is a lifelong sailor, and he writes like a man who understands ballast. The Rocks has all the requisite romance and intrigue of good melodrama—and its settings are so postcard-gorgeous you can almost taste the sea spray and cold horchata—but there’s real wit and substance in his storytelling. Think of it as a beach read you’ll still respect in the morning. A–


Her guests had always marveled at how young she looked. “Lulu, don’t be ridiculous, darling—you can’t be eighty?”

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