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Constance Alexander: More than a beach book, ‘At the Breakers’ eases the loss of another summer

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but another summer just ended. When the door slammed the other day, it probably hit you in the butt. How could you have missed it?

In Murray, one sure sign of season’s leaving was school buses stopping traffic on Main Street. A few days later, the influx of college kids was impossible to miss. Walmart is still reeling from the long lines and last-minute purchases of random essentials: sheets to match the roomie’s, one of those mini-refrigerators just the right size to cool a six-pack, detergent for dirty clothes not likely to see a washing machine until mid-terms.

Don’t fret. Another summer is just around the corner. You can renew your passport in the fall and start learning French by New Year’s Eve or begin training for the Thanksgiving Fun Run as soon as the hot weather cools down.

My way of extending the season has been to re-read Mary Ann Taylor-Hall’s “At the Breakers,” a novel that transported me to my old New Jersey home.

The story starts in mid-September with a woman, Jo Sinclair, reading Jane Austen on a New Jersey Transit train as it speeds to New York, “through the sumac thickets and marshes and industrial site of eastern New Jersey.”

I can imagine her boarding in New Brunswick, finding an empty seat, and opening her book. She bounces slightly with every jolt as the train chugs along, her reading undeterred.

By the second paragraph on page one, it is clear Jo’s life is sort of a mess. Actually, a series of messes, a solid history of screw-ups.

She explains it like this: “I am a forty-two-year-old woman with four children, aged twenty-eight (yes, it’s possible) to thirteen.”

Her normal day is disrupted when she drops her thirteen-year-old off at school and realizes it is her troubled older daughter’s birthday. Oops!

“On the wings of guilt”—as Jo puts it — she hastily re-arranges her work schedule, swapping shifts with a co-worker. She calls the daughter, jumps on the train to the city, has a birthday lunch with Wendy, and squeezes in a few other adventures before she rushes back home in time to work the dinner shift at the pricey central Jersey restaurant where she is a server.

Through a chain of unfortunate incidents, including a creepy and controlling lover, she flees to Sea Cove at the Jersey shore a couple of days later. Standing in front of an old hotel called The Breakers, a place remembered from childhood, she sees a Help Wanted sign for a painter.

Jo figures she is qualified: “She had probably spent more time painting houses than she’d spent doing anything else, she now realized, except waitressing. Painting houses before she abandoned them, that was her career path.”

On impulse, she barges in to meet the new owner and talks her way into the job of getting all the guest rooms painted in time for a CPA convention right before Christmas. The task is daunting, but Jo is used to challenges, including having her first child at fifteen and dealing with the consequences of bad choices in husbands too.

Jo, who thought of herself as “blue collar,” had been an avid reader all those years since she was fourteen and pregnant. Inspired by daughter Erica’s academic achievement, Jo began to take a couple of college courses a semester at another nearby college.

As a result, at about thirty-four, “for the first time in her life, she began to have a life of her own. Anyone could have predicted that, once she delivered herself to the world, through her job and her classes, the adolescence Jo missed out on would tackle her from behind.”

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Along the way, her failings and missteps are obvious, but not to Jo. She was making up for lost time.

“Someday, I’ll call these my wilder days,’ she told herself as if to reassure the shocked Catholic girl in her that this was just a phase.”

As she discovered her sexual power, she faltered in mothering her daughter Wendy. The girl eventually ran away and Jo and a private detective finally tracked her down. When “At the Breakers” opens, the relationship is still tentative; Jo’s recent lover, Hank Dunegan, has revealed himself a sadistic abuser. Added to that, a chance encounter with one of her English professors and taking her job at The Breakers, the stage is set for a story you want to read without pause.

Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, a poet and fiction writer, admits there are some autobiographical aspects of her novel. Her writing makes the setting of the Jersey shore come alive and the characters she creates are realistic but not predictable.

Reading “At the Breakers” a second time to write this piece, I fantasized an “All Jersey” film version, perhaps directed by James Brooks, who grew up in North Bergen. (His film credits include “Terms of Endearment” and “As Good as it Gets.”)

There is a slew of New Jersey talent to take the parts, none of them small. Kirsten Dunst would be a perfect Jo. Born 1982 in Point Pleasant — down the Shore in New Jersey parlance — she is about the right age and demeanor. Queen Latifah, a Newark native, would be a convincing Ramona, who works as a server with Jo.

Who wouldn’t want to see John Travolta (Englewood) as the over-powering Hank Dunegan, and Nathan Lane (Jersey City) as Irv Brewer, new owner of The Breakers? Michael Douglas (New Brunswick) might be a bit too old, and Jason Alexander (Newark) a bit too short, but both are candidates for Victor Mangold, the alluring English professor.

Meryl Streep (Summit) could breathe life into the character of hotel resident, Veronica Caspari, a retired classical musician, and Susan Sarandon (Edison) might make a terrific Iris Zephyr, former stripper. Paul Rudd (Passaic) could manage being the hunky Marco Meese.

Not sure who would be best for the kids’ roles, but possibilities for cameos are endless. Surely a few lines could be thrown to Martha Stewart (Jersey City), Jack Nicholson (Neptune), Ice T (Newark), David Copperfield (Metuchen), and Kelly Ripa (Stratford)..

The soundtrack? There are plenty of choices: Paul Simon (Newark), Jon Bon Jovi, (Perth Amboy) Kevin Jonas (Teaneck), but my vote goes to Springsteen from Long Branch, who definitely knows the territory.

First published in 2009, “At the Breakers” paperback edition came out earlier this year, via University Press of Kentucky. Jump on the train in New Brunswick with Jo Sinclair, and the rest of the journey takes care of itself. You get glimpses of New York City and will end up at the Shore while the water’s still warm.

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