55 pages 1 hour read

Kristin Hannah

Summer Island: A Novel

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2001

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Summary and Study Guide


Summer Island (2001) is a novel written by American author Kristin Hannah. The narrative follows Nora Bridge, a successful advice columnist and radio host, as she navigates a scandal that destroys her career and forces her to finally address the family secrets she’s spent decades running from. The novel explores themes such as The Pain of Family Secrets and Estrangement, The Consequences of Fame and Maintaining Appearances, and The Healing Power of Forgiveness and Releasing the Past.

Content Warning: The source text and this guide discuss suicide.

Plot Summary

Nora Bridge is a famous and successful radio host who gained fame from her national advice column. She is known for her empathetic and direct advice. However, Nora has several family secrets that she wants to keep hidden. On her 50th birthday, a man with whom she had an affair blackmails her radio station with illicit photos he took of her. Her bosses are outraged that Nora had an affair while married, given her saintly public persona. Realizing this will destroy her career, Nora begins to self-sabotage and gets into a car accident after driving while intoxicated. As a result, her two daughters, Caroline and Ruby, come to visit her. Ruby has not seen her mother in many years and is resentful toward Nora for abandoning her and Caroline when they were teenagers. Nora recuperates at their family’s summer house, and Ruby goes with her.

Ruby’s motives for helping her mother are not completely pure. Ruby is a struggling comedian who is known for making jokes about how terrible a mother Nora was. Following the scandal, Ruby is approached by a magazine and offered $50,000 to write an exposé on Nora. She agrees to do it and views the article as an opportunity to find fame and seek revenge against Nora. By taking care of Nora, Ruby believes she will be able to find even more damning material to include in her article.

Eric Sloan, a family friend, will also be at his family’s island home. Eric is dying of cancer and has few people who support him in his life, outside of Nora. Nora encourages him to reach out to his brother Dean, despite the fact he has been estranged from Dean for many years. Dean rushes to the island to be with Eric as he dies, even though the island brings up negative memories of his failed romantic relationship with Ruby.

Ruby and Nora arrive on the island and return to their summer home. They are immediately uncomfortable with each other, especially since they are staying in the home that they lived in when Nora abandoned her family. However, through completing domestic tasks together such as cooking and grocery shopping, the two women begin to talk about the past. Despite feeling closer to her mother, Ruby begins to write her article.

Eric and Nora concoct a plan to encourage Ruby and Dean to reconcile. When Dean learns that Ruby is on the island with Nora, he rushes to see her. While both realize they still have feelings for each other, Ruby is still too afraid of committing to Dean, convinced that she will be abandoned by those she loves. Realizing she needs to know the truth about her parents’ relationship and unsatisfied with the information Nora gives her, Ruby goes to see her father.

Rand, Ruby’s father, tells her that he and Nora married because he wanted someone to care about him while he was stationed in Vietnam. Nora wrote him letters during the war that kept him alive, but, when he returned, he was a changed man. He cheated frequently on Nora, and she eventually caught him, which led to her leaving him and their children. Ruby is upset that her father could betray the family and confused about how this makes her view Nora and goes to see Caroline. Caroline is overwhelmed by her own domestic duties and admits she’s scared to get to know Nora.

When Ruby returns home, she and Nora discuss Rand’s infidelity. Nora confides in Ruby, explaining that she was extremely depressed during this period of her marriage and attempted to die by suicide several times. Following her own extramarital affair, Nora was admitted to a mental institution. After she was discharged, she tried to return home, but her family refused to let her return. Ruby writes about Nora’s mental illness in her article and realizes how it alters the narrative she’s always believed: that Nora abandoned her for fame and money.

Dean takes Ruby out on a date and confesses that he still loves her, but she is too scared of being abandoned to admit that she still loves him. They share a passionate kiss, and Dean is confident in his ability to woo Ruby once again, albeit very slowly.

Ruby and Nora continue to grow closer, and Caroline soon joins them at the summer house for a night. She admits to struggling in her marriage, and Nora counsels her, leading them to reconcile. Ruby realizes how detrimental the article will be to Nora’s reputation and their burgeoning relationship, and tells her editor that she will not be turning in the article.

Ruby, Nora, Eric, and Dean go sailing together. That night, Ruby tells Dean how she truly feels about him, and they consummate their relationship. Dean proposes to Ruby, and she accepts. When she returns to the house, she receives a call from her agent, who tells her she is legally obligated to submit the article. Devastated, Ruby prepares to tell Nora.

The next morning, Ruby provides Nora with a copy of the article. While Nora is initially devastated by Ruby’s opinions, she ultimately encourages her to publish the article. Nora tells her daughter that she will appear on the talk shows with her to publicize the article, suggesting that she is ready to address the media criticism she has received and previously hid from.

Nora and Ruby rise to fame through their media tour but return to Eric and Dean. Eric dies shortly after their return. Several months later, Ruby and Dean marry at the Summer Island chapel with their family in attendance.

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