A Great Summer Read | Cup of Jo

Sandwich by Catherine Newman

Our friend Catherine Newman (of cold swimming and teenage boys and house tour fame) has a new novel out called Sandwich and just to be sure I don’t bury the lead here, I couldn’t love it more, can’t stop talking about it, can’t stop texting full paragraphs to my friends saying, “Right!!???”

The novel is about a family that has been visiting the same Cape Cod beach rental for 20 years and narrated by the lovably flawed, boundary-challenged 55-year-old mother Rachel (“Rocky”). She’s on vacation with her husband, Nick, their two twenty-something children, Willa and Jamie, and Jamie’s longtime girlfriend, Maya. Rocky’s elderly parents make a cameo, too, because this is now Rocky’s life, figuring out her role sandwiched between the two generations. Technically, Sandwich is a summer read because it takes place in the summer during a week-long beach vacation, and, well, look at that big summery ocean-weathered house on the cover. It’s so completely fun and laugh-out-loud funny the way summer reads are supposed to be.

But! Do I need to remind you this is Catherine Newman — author of We All Want Impossible Things, and about a million other stories that may or may not have rearranged your worldview about everything from empty nesting to raising teens to drinking alcohol — and I can’t think of anyone who writes more openly about the way joy and grief walk in lockstep, especially when we are taking care of kids, taking care of elderly parents, taking care of our confusing aging bodies. In Sandwich, between fairy-lighted clam-shack dinners and ocean sunsets that look like “melting popsicles,” we learn about Rocky’s past, a series of painful memories wrapped in dark secrets. “It’s so crushingly beautiful, being human,” 55-year-old Rocky says to her 20-year-old daughter in the prologue — a line which might sound dealbreaker-corny to the Newman-uninitiated. Until Rocky’s eye-rolling daughter replies: “But also so terrible and ridiculous.”

Much of the beauty and wit of Sandwich lies in the interactions with her hyper-articulate children and in Rocky’s everyday observations of parenting grown children. Asking your kid if you’re allowed to use the phrase “That slaps.” (Verdict: Probably not.) Liking an Instagram post on her son’s crush by accident, then unliking and re-liking in a panic. (“Sorry, you guys, I’m the worst!” is a Rocky refrain.) Staring at your kids without really listening to them, in disbelief that you made these people “from scratch.” The emptiness you feel when you return home from a vacation without them.

The vacation itself adds an extra layer of relatability: the rental’s toilet clogs on the first night. The Jean Naté lotion in the bathroom that smells like “everyone’s 1975 mother.” The inability to get the family out of the house before 1:00 p.m. The epic sandwich packing for the beach. (She’s always making sandwiches.) The food, oh man, the food! “Why does this taste so good?” Rocky asks when she’s eating a whitefish-smeared Ritz cracker at cocktail hour, and Jamie answers, “Horseradish? Lemon? Vacation?” She is besotted by her adult children, their quick wits, their jobs with start-ups, their compassion, their bodies. “They are so grown! So young. Mine and not mine, as ever they have been.”

It’s all so head-noddingly charming that you almost don’t notice how heavy — or maybe Newman would say “full” — your heart becomes while holding Rocky’s sadness. (The phrase “At first slowly, then all at once” comes to mind here.) As she becomes mired in the dredged-up sorrow from her past, Rocky is also dealing with the very in-the-moment reality and confusion of menopause, and coming to terms with what she calls a life of “total reproductive mayhem.” There are mood swings and hot flashes, but Newman’s rendering of menopause is more nuanced and personal — and sometimes even hilarious. Like this description of forgetfulness:

Right?!?? Congratulations on all the rave reviews, Catherine! We just love your book.

P.S. Catherine’s joyful house tour and a darkly funny book we can’t stop thinking about.

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