A former beauty queen faces the secrets of her past — for herself and the sake of her family’s future — in The Last Bathing Beauty by Amy Sue Nathan (Lake Union Publishing), a heartfelt novel about fate, choices and second chances.

It’s the summer of 1951, and pretty 18-year-old Betty Stern is working her last summer at her grandparents’ lakeside resort before heading to college in New York City. She’s got big dreams of becoming a fashion editor but she’s planning on having a fun-filled summer and competing in the annual Miss South Haven pageant. After that, the future is as wide open as the July sky.

Decades later, though, the choices made during that long-ago summer are still echoing for Betty, whom everyone now calls Boop. When her granddaughter visits, carrying a burden that is all too similar to Boop’s memories of that summer, she realizes it’s time to finally confront the past and see it for what it was and perhaps what it might still promise, even after all these years.

Told over two time periods, this novel follows Betty during that life-changing summer she competed in the 1951 bathing beauty contest at her family’s resort, and also many years later when she is now a cherished grandmother called Boop and a senior adult whose life accomplishments have been very different than those she had envisioned for herself when she was a contender in that pageant.

This was a delight to read for so many reasons. The setting is iconic and sensorial and transporting. Everything that is beloved by so many regarding the early 1950s is golden here, and If you’re a fan of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, you will especially appreciate Nathan’s setting details for South Haven, a Lake Michigan area renowned for its many resorts for Jewish families and warmly regarded as the Catskills of the Midwest. 

Nathan’s delicious descriptions sent me off to learn more. I was fascinated to discover that in the early part of the twentieth century, dozens of Jewish immigrant farms were located near South Haven. Because of the short growing season, those farmers could make extra money by offering rooms to tourists, which soon led to the area’s reputation as a resort mecca like the Catskills. South Haven was renowned as a trendy vacation spot where Jewish families could enjoy the summer in a beautiful lakeshore setting. And hold beauty pageants!

Nathan’s characters are real and relatable, and the emotional pull of their decisions — both in the past and in the now — is what makes this book a delightful but also thoughtful read. One of the more intricately woven thematic threads is that of friendship, and how your friends not only influence your life but also shape the way you see yourself and your place in the world.

If you want to escape the troubled times we’re living in right now, The Last Bathing Beauty will give you the mental escape you’re needing and the feel-good ending you’re hungry for.

Buy this book!

Amy Sue Nathan is the author of Left to Chance, The Glass Wives, and The Good Neighbor, as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers blog. Her stories and essays have appeared in print and online in over two dozen publications including The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Parent, Writer’s Digest, Huffington Post, and online in the New York Times and Washington Post blogs. A graduate of Temple University with a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, Nathan teaches writing workshops and freelances as a fiction editor and writing coach. She lives in Philadelphia.