Having very much enjoyed listening to The Wicked City earlier this year (and being a fan of this author’s alter-ego, Juliana Gray), I was keen to listen to Beatriz Williams’ latest offering, Cocoa Beach, which follows a young widow as she tries to discover the truth about the estranged husband who recently perished in a house fire at his Florida home. It is loosely linked to both The Wicked City and the book which preceded it, A Certain Age, insofar as some of the characters have either appeared or been mentioned in one or both of those novels, but otherwise Cocoa Beach can be enjoyed as a standalone.
In 1917, Virginia Fortescue flees her oppressive home in New York to drive ambulances back and forth between the trenches and the field hospitals of Northern France. The USA has not yet joined the war, but she and a group of other volunteers led by the wealthy and formidable Mrs. DeForest are out there “doing their bit”, in whatever capacities they can be useful. On a trip to pick up some wounded men and take them to the hospital Mrs. DeForest has set up in an old château, Virginia meets the handsome, charismatic Captain Simon Fitzwilliam, an army surgeon, and he ends up travelling back to the hospital with her in order to inspect the facilities. There’s an instant frisson of attraction between the two, although Virginia is wary; not only is he quite a bit older than she is (she’s twenty-one, he’s mid-thirties) and almost too good to be true, but her complicated relationship with her stern, reclusive father means she has little experience with men and is uncomfortable around them. Yet by the end of this brief time spent together, Virginia is desperately smitten and so, it seems, is Simon, and he tells her he’s going to write to her. Virginia is on cloud nine – until one of the other girls in her unit tells her Simon is married, with a young son.
A few months later, when Virginia and a couple of her friends are in Paris having recently joined the U.S. Army Ambulance Service, she and Simon meet again, and when she confronts him about his marriage, he explains it was a match made for expediency and money, and that he is going to ask his wife for a divorce. He tells Virginia about his family – old, traditionally English, and with a crumbling country pile in Cornwall (hence the need for him to marry money) – and his twin brother, Samuel, who is missing, presumed killed since the early days of the war.
Naturally then, Virginia – and the listener – is surprised to meet Samuel shortly after this, when he tells Virginia that he was, in fact, captured and has been in a Prisoner of War camp, something of which his family – including Simon – has been aware since it happened. Samuel is bitter and clearly distrustful of his brother, but Virginia refuses to let his jealousy affect her feelings for Simon, even when Samuel tells her that the story Simon has told her about his marriage is untrue. Virginia doesn’t quite trust Samuel, but the seeds of doubt are sewn.
Five years on, in 1922, Virginia – who married Simon after the war, left him not long afterwards and now has a two-and-a-half year-old daughter by him – is in Florida following the news of his death a few months earlier. She has travelled to Cocoa Beach in order to inspect the business Simon built up singlehandedly and has left to her, and also to try to uncover the truth about his death – or rather to pursue her own theory, which is that he isn’t dead at all. While out with her sister-in-law Clara one evening, she is approached by Oliver Marshall, a Prohibition agent, who implies that Simon was mixed up in something very dangerous and that Virginia should steer well clear. But this meeting only confirms her suspicions that Simon was involved with something criminal and makes her more determined than ever to get to the truth.
The story thus alternates between chapters set in 1917 – telling how Virginia and Simon met and fell in love – and chapters set in 1922, when she travels to Florida in order to settle her husband’s estate after his death. That sort of back-and-forth is a narrative device I enjoy when it’s done well, but while that is the case here, I found the chapters set in 1922 harder to get into than those set in 1917. I suppose that was because I wanted to know more straight away about Simon and Virginia’s romance, marriage and estrangement in order to give context to the rest of the story, and I confess I found the earlier 1922 chapters a bit of a slog and slow to get going.
Things really pick up after the half-way point, however, as the plot starts to twist and turn, and we – like Virginia – start to wonder who we can really trust. Was Simon telling the truth, or is Samuel? Was Simon really the cold, manipulative man Samuel presents him as or is Samuel’s opinion coloured by his personal dislike for his brother? Are the rumours that Simon was a rum-runner true – and was his death not an accident? Virginia is plunged ever deeper into a web of secrets, blackmail, lies and intrigue as she delves deeper into the mystery, which culminates with a terrific plot twist I didn’t see coming.
The writing is superb, as is the characterisation; and while I did get a little annoyed with Virginia for allowing herself to be so easily misled at one important point, for the most part, she’s an engaging narrator, a resilient, independent woman who exhibits a quiet strength at times of crisis. She’s also damaged and somewhat naïve as a result of her upbringing, factors which probably account for the way she allows herself to be manipulated by those who don’t have her best interests at heart.
I’ve been aware of Eva Kaminsky as a narrator for a while, although I hadn’t got around to listening to her before now. I’m pleased to report that she turns in an excellent performance here; her pacing is good and she differentiates clearly between all the characters, doing an especially good job with Evelyn, Virginia’s young daughter, who sounds young but not too babyish. She performs the male characters with a slight drop in pitch and gives some of them, like the lawyer, Mr. Burnside, a bit of a harsher edge to his tone to make him sound a little unpleasant. I was also most relieved to discover that her English accent is very good indeed; she applies it consistently when speaking as Simon, Samuel or Clara (their sister) and makes only a handful of slips and mispronunciations. My one complaint really is that Ms. Kaminsky uses rather an odd intonation at the ends of sentences which makes the cadence feel as though it is unfinished or incomplete. It’s an odd musical analogy, I know (I can’t help it – I’m a musician!), but it’s the only way to aptly describe it. While most of the time when a person speaks, we will either raise or lower our pitch at the end of a sentence to indicate its conclusion, Ms. Kaminsky often tends to end sentences at the same pitch as the rest of it. I got used to it after a while, but the fact it was something I had to get used to means it’s worth mentioning in this review.
Interspersed between the chapters and alternating timeline are a number of letters that Simon writes to Virginia but never sends. Because the listener is privy to these before Virginia is, they help to give more of an insight into Simon’s character and motivations, and Alex Wyndham reads these with his customary insight and intelligence. He has a small part to play in this audiobook as a whole, but it is nonetheless enhanced by his presence.
I enjoyed listening to Cocoa Beach in spite of the issues I had with the pacing in the earlier part of the book (and the ending, which is rather abrupt), but I would nonetheless recommend it to anyone interested in a strongly written piece of historical fiction combined with an intriguing mystery and more than a dash of romance.
TITLE: Cocoa Beach
AUTHOR: Beatriz Williams
NARRATED BY: Eva Kaminsky and Alex Wyndham
GENRE: Historical Fiction
STEAM FACTOR: Glad I had my earbuds in (but at the very tame end)
REVIEWER: CazBuy Cocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams on Amazon EXCERPT: