“On Fire Island” by Jane L. Rosen

by Rita Plush

“On Fire Island”

by Jane Rosen



Rosen has traded the hullaballoo of urban life for the carefree and car-free, and set her most recent tome on Fire Island. No stranger to surf and sand, Rosen has been a summer resident of Seaview for many years.

Rosen’s affection for the island is palpable as she takes us into the local market for a specialty sandwich, to Gay Bingo, and to the big softball game marking the season’s end, the novel as much a serenade to Fire Island itself as it is a love song to a grieving husband. Julia Morse, the novel’s narrator, loves everything about the island, even the trek from the big city; she dubs the two-lane, slow-going Robert Moses Causeway the “pretty way” out east.

The island itself ? “A haven for warm souls and mismatched pairs, for neighbors, lovers and kooks, and kook-loving neighbors… [where] generational divides are blurred.” The warmth of it, I thought. Like “Cheers,” where everyone knows your name.

Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gently into that good night” might have been written with Julia in mind. She’s not going anywhere, gently, or otherwise. After she dies at 37 of ovarian cancer, Julia decides to stick around for one last Fire Island summer, eyes, ears and heart on her adoring novelist husband Ben. She details their courtship, the trips they took, the times they fought, the times they made up. They were so close – she was his editor – so in love; how will Ben get on without her?

Yes, readers, this story is narrated by a dead woman. A dead woman with warmth and wit, who imagines her mother at her funeral, lifting the casket lid: ”Is that what you’re wearing?” At the seven-day shiva, the Jewish mourning period, we meet heart- sick Ben, “the shiva fugitive,” who, wanting to be alone, breaks from the shiva and sets out for Fire Is- land with their dog Sally in tow. Who’s towing who here? Ben can barely walk. Eager as she is to catch up with the goings on, Julia leaves him waiting for the ferry, “It was selfish … but hey, you only die once,” she offers in her dry, pragmatic take.

Rosen’s book takes in plenty. Poignant scenes reflect community and kindness, friendship, the wisdom of age, youth in all its glorious turmoil, and Ben at the heart of it. On his grief journey, while the vibrant life of their friends, 80-year-old Shep, Renee (her bestie since their college days) and her teen son Matty and girlfriend Dylan, play out around him.

Home at last in the cottage located within the fictionally named Fire Island community dubbed Bay Harbor, the only place Ben wants to be is in the bed he shared with Julia. Imagine his surprise when he discovers that the lump in said bed is Shep, who lives across the street, but technically only. Widowed himself, he’s lonely going it alone, so he’s been spending time at Ben’s.

 Having stocked the fridge with casseroles from the “brisket brigade,” Shep tells his friend, “No widower goes hungry in this town,” and brings Ben up to speed on the women who storm the gates with their cookery, not only to light up the ovens of newly single men, but their hearts as well.

Speaking of hearts, Renee, recently husband-dumped, has found a much younger boyfriend, a musician on the island for a summer gig. When Matty stops by for some sympatico – lover boy is closer to his age than to mom’s – Shep, subtle as a gut punch, asks, “Your mom still banging the drummer?” Folks in town know a lot more than your name. 

Rosen sets a scene just so and serves up relevant types, but I found that the backstories on her characters’ families slowed down the easy flow of the book. I wanted to get back to Shep and his high jinks. And Ben. How is he doing?    

You can’t rush the process. He mopes. He cries, and cries – it’s good for him to get it out. One night he smiles at bingo – how could he not with all that lively banter? And then at the softball game … He’s going to make it after all.

If you have a summer home, self-invited guests can be a challenge. I own no such abode, but, I’m inviting you … to pick up a copy. Read it “On Fire Island.” Or, on any island you may be this summer. You’ll like it.