Elin Hilderbrand: The Queen of Summer…in Winter

Elin Hilderbrand’s hold on her avid readers comes to life on a Nantucket January weekend.

By Meg Noonan

Dec 07 2022


Elin Hilderbrand’s fans crowd around the best-selling Nantucket author (highlighted) for a group portrait during the annual Elin Hilderbrand Bucket List Weekend.

Photo Credit : Rebecca Love

This is so not Elin Hilderbrand weather.For starters, it’s January. The wind chill is in the single digits. Nantucket Sound is riled up. The low cloud cover seems shot through with steel wool. But Hilderbrand, the effervescent, blond, toned, and perpetually tan author of dozens of beachy, best-selling novels set on Massachusetts’s Nantucket Island, where she lives, is gamely cheesing her way through selfie after selfie. It’s day two of the sold-out Elin Hilderbrand Bucket List Weekend, which has brought 150 fans (Hilderbabes, in the parlance) to the island to pal around with the writer during themed banquets, yoga sessions, cooking classes, and, everyone’s favorite, late-night dancing at the Chicken Box, the dive-y bar that makes frequent appearances in Hilderbrand’s novels. On the schedule this morning: a photo op at the white-shingled Brant Point lighthouse—frigid north winds be damned.

“It’s fine,” Hilderbrand says through a half-frozen smile to the women waiting in line for a picture with her. She’s wearing a driftwood-colored knit beanie, aviator sunglasses, a black puffer jacket, jeans, and damp-at-the-toe sheepskin boots, a getup through which she is somehow projecting sunniness and glamour, though it’s a far cry from the strappy mini-dresses and crystal-embellished sandals she sports for most appearances. “I’ll stay until you guys all have what you want.”

That’s not entirely true. What they want, what all her fans want, is the promise of a fat Hilderbrand novel to escape into this summer and all the summers to come. They want those familiar book covers with the azure skies over sapphire seas, and the viewed-from-behind women lolling in canvas sling chairs or under umbrellas on golden sand. They want the Mirabels and Mallorys of Hilderbrand’s fictional universe to continue to find second chances at love, reconciliation with estranged family members, and girl-boss empowerment—all while sipping icy gimlets at Galley Beach or slurping mignonette-bathed Pocomo Meadow oysters at CRU. But after 22 years of producing one novel a year—and sometimes two—the 53-year-old queen of the beach read, as she is often called, is throwing in the (plush, cabana-striped Turkish cotton) towel. The book she turns in late in 2023 will be the last of her annual novels. This, despite the fact that she is at peak popularity: Her latest, The Hotel Nantucket, inspired by the grand, 43-room Nantucket Hotel which hosts the Bucket List getaway, debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.

Elin Hilderbrand on the steps of the Hotel Nantucket, first opened in 1891. The stately hotel not only hosts the Bucket List Weekend festivities but also inspired Hilderbrand’s book, The Hotel Nantucket.
Photo Credit : Rebecca Love

“I need to get off the merry-go-round of the expectation that it’s June and Elin Hilderbrand is going to have a new summer book. It’s just too much,” she said later. “I feel great pressure to write a better book every time. I can’t take the stress of having no end in sight.”

She knows that doesn’t please her fans.

“I think my readers would be more disappointed if I kept going and put out books that didn’t live up to expectations. I’m doing us all a favor by retiring,” she said. “I don’t understand why more writers don’t do it. Honestly. It’s dismounting and nailing the landing and just being, like, I’m done.”

Little, Brown & Co., Hilderbrand’s publisher, was shocked when she said she wanted to stop.

“I don’t think they believed me. They came to me with a four-book deal. They were offering a lot of money. And of course, in publishing, when that happens, people say, ‘Oh, thank you, thank you, this is so great.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want it.’ They just did not understand.” Eventually, she agreed to deliver three more books, including The Hotel Nantucket.

“And then I started writing that book and I could not get it right. I wrote six different beginnings. I thought, I’m screwed. I’m blocked. I shouldn’t have signed the contract. I sold my soul to the devil. But I kept at it. I just had to have faith in myself. And then about two-thirds of the way through it, I thought, This book is going to be really good. I say that with so much immodesty. But, I couldn’t believe it! It was such a relief.

Best-selling author Elin Hilderbrand.

Elin Hilderbrand’s march to beach tote ubiquity started with her childhood in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, where she won the “top author award” in second grade. Her parents divorced, and when her father remarried, the newly blended family began a tradition of spending July in a rented cottage in Brewster, Massachusetts. Those Cape Cod vacations with her four siblings were what she calls classic American summer: beach picnics, mini-golf, outdoor showers, touch football, tidepool explorations, board games, and for Hilderbrand and her step-sister, Heather, walks down a sandy lane to the local bookstore with saved-up allowances in their pockets. The trips came to a sudden end in 1985, when Hilderbrand’s father died in a small-plane crash while returning home from a business trip. She spent her 17th summer assembling Halloween costumes in a factory outside of Philadelphia, grieving both her father and those magical days by the sea.

“I promised myself then that I would create a life where I spent every summer at the beach,” she said.

After graduating from Johns Hopkins in 1993 with a degree in creative writing, she took her first trip to Nantucket and was smitten. A year later, she left a teaching job in New York to move to the island year-round.

“Those summers on the Cape were the happiest times of my life, so I think I felt a deep-seated instinct to want to re-create them for myself in a more permanent way. In some ways, my method of healing from my father’s death was to follow in his footsteps.”

In 1996, she married Chip Cunningham, the general manager of the Cliffside Beach Club, a tony gray-shingled hotel and private club on the island’s north shore. Hilderbrand wrote classified ads for the local newspaper while working on a novel set in New York City. (“It was horrible,” she has said.) Still, she was accepted into the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate program.

“My first day I walked in wearing a white sundress and little gold ballet flats. I was very tan and I was, like, ‘Oh, hiii!’ Everyone else was in all black. The boys were in fedoras and the women were in granny shawls. Right out of central casting.

“I thought, We need to liven this place up, so I taped up a sign that said I was hosting a cocktail party and my classmates were looking at it, like, what is this? Is it free? I said, ‘Yes, it’s a party at my house!’ And I threw a banger. I made all the hors d’oeuvres from Sarah Leah Chase’s Nantucket Open-House Cookbook,” she said with a laugh. “They did not know what to make of me.”

Neither did her professors. “I got crucified each and every week. My first workshop teacher was Frank Conroy. After we’d all talked about one of my stories, he said, ‘This will never be published. You will never be published.’ I knew he was wrong.”

Miserable and homesick, Hilderbrand availed herself of the university’s free counseling. “I’d go every week and cry about how much I missed Nantucket. One day the therapist said, ‘You know what you have to do? Start writing a novel about the island.’ So I did.”

Hilderbrand’s previous hits neatly displayed at the hotel, for sale and signing.

By chance, Michael Carlisle, a literary agent with strong family ties to Nantucket, sat in on her final workshop. He asked which of them lived on the island. “I was in a navy-and-white sarong,” she said. “It was probably very apparent it was me.”

When she told him after class that she was writing a novel set on Nantucket, he asked her to send it to him when she finished. In January 1999, she mailed him The Beach Club, based loosely on her husband’s workplace.

“Michael called and said, ‘I love the book, I’d like to represent you, and I’m going to make you lots and lots of money.’ He’s been my agent for 22 years. It’s the longest relationship I’ve sustained in my adult life.”

Despite Carlisle’s enthusiasm, Hilderbrand’s first five books sold modestly. But a move in 2007 to Little, Brown, which launched a marketing campaign to brand her as the writer of juicy annual beach reads, changed her trajectory. Each book did better than the last. In 2019, with Summer of ’69, she knocked Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens’s blockbuster debut novel, out of the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list.

Pens at the ready, Hilderbrand dove into personalizing 5,000 copies of her latest book for sale at two of her local bookstores, Mitchell’s Book Corner and Nantucket Bookworks. A full-time island resident since 1994, she’s made Nantucket the backdrop for more than two dozen novels.
Photo Credit : Rebecca Love

“I’d watched book after book come out and try to bump Crawdads off. And then I did it. It was … overwhelming,” she said, choking up. “I always get teary when I talk about it. I am not Delia Owens. I did not become an instant best-seller. It was my 23rd book.”

While raising her three children, now 22, 20, and 16, Hilderbrand wrote everywhere and anywhere—always in longhand, always on legal pads. She wrote in the stands of her kids’ games, on the ferry, in the school pickup line, at the beach. After she and her husband divorced in 2013, she moved to a small house near the Nantucket Hotel, bought a gym membership there, and wrote by the hotel pool. Her goal was always to piece together three cumulative hours of composing a day.

“If it took me six or seven hours to do it, I was fine with that,” she said. “I’ve always done the work. It was my job. I’m consistent. That’s not a sexy word. It’s boring. I’m a reliable writer. That’s all I ever wanted to be. To give the readers exactly the same thing completely differently every year.”

“She’s the most disciplined person I have ever met,” said Tim Ehrenberg, marketing director of Nantucket Book Partners, which owns the island’s two bookstores, including Mitchell’s Book Corner, where Hildebrand does always-mobbed weekly appearances in the summer. Ehrenberg orchestrated Hilderbrand’s personalization of 5,000 copies of The Hotel Nantucket pre-ordered through the stores’ website. (The site crashed the day they announced the signed books were available.) “If we were going to meet in the store to sign, she’d text me and say, ‘OK, I can be there at 4:07 but I have to be gone at 4:34 to be somewhere else at 4:39.’ It really was that specific.”

That rigid schedule, which also included three hours of intense exercise every morning—running, Peloton, and a barre class—was derailed in the spring of 2014 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was floored.

“I was healthy and ran 7-8 miles a day, I ate a lot of blueberries,” she wrote in a Huffington Post blog post days after her diagnosis. “I lie awake in the middle of the night … I am scared.”

She decided to go public about her illness. The day after appearing on CBS This Morning to talk about her diagnosis, she underwent a double mastectomy. Twelve days later, with surgical drains still in place, she was back on the road promoting her newest book. More surgeries to deal with a life-threatening infection followed. Through it all, she wrote: in doctors’ waiting rooms and in the hospital. Hilderbrand’s openness about her cancer earned her more fans, some of whom showed up at her events bald from chemo to say her books had helped them get through treatments. Her social media accounts (which she manages herself) became virtual clubhouses for an ever-growing you-go-girl sisterhood.

Beach bonding with two of her fans.

It’s Tropical Night at the Nantucket Hotel. Tables in the airy, whitewashed ballroom are set with faux monstera leaves and woven palm-frond placemats. The Bucket List attendees’ bright floral dresses are accessorized with plastic leis. Hilderbrand, in a flouncy, short, mai tai–hued dress and strappy heels, has made her way to a low stage to begin the after-dinner trivia contest. The stakes are high; the winner will appear as a minor character in the author’s next book.

Hilderbrand calls out questions related to her 27-book oeuvre. There is murmuring and head-shaking and laughter. Was it Pickford Crimmins or Hobby Alistair? Madaket or Madequecham? Love O’Donnell or Featherleigh Dale?

“Even I don’t remember all this stuff,” Hilderbrand says.

Jessica Bailey, an oncology nurse, and Lynnel Ruckert, a political consultant, are sitting at a round table near the center of the room. The two Baton Rouge residents had bonded over their love of Hilderbrand books while spending endless hours in the bleachers of their sons’ baseball games. When they both nabbed coveted spots at the Bucket List weekend—3,400 waitlisted fans were turned away—they began to prepare for this night.

“We strategized,” Bailey explained later. “We divided all 27 books up and started re-reading them. We took notes—names of characters, where they met, where they worked. Names of lighthouses, restaurants, beaches…”

“Jessica made a spreadsheet,” Ruckert said.

“To see where we were and where we needed to get,” Bailey said.

When the points were tallied, they had tied for first place. Hilderbrand suggested a runoff, but they declined.

“We’d already decided that if either of us won, we wanted to use our names together—Bailey Ruckert. Elin likes unusual names, so we thought it was perfect.”

Everyone agreed. It was perfect.

Elin Hilderbrand and Little, Brown may have popularized the beach read, but they did not invent it. That subset of fiction emerged in the mid-to-late 19th century, with the rise of summer tourism. In grand seaside and mountain hotels, on trains and steamers, the new middle class suddenly had time to read.

Publishers took note, as author Donna Harrington-Lueker wrote in Books for Idle Hours: Nineteenth Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading, and began pushing “light leisure-time reading that included a mix of escapist sensation fiction, risqué French novels, backlist titles of steady-sellers from established authors, and a new offering—the novel set specifically at the summer resort.”

Cultural critics warned against the dangers of reading such insubstantial fare, especially for young women, whose very virtue, they argued, was threatened by the frothy, overstimulating content.

“I really believe,” said the Reverend T. De Witt Talmage, a prominent New York preacher, in an 1876 sermon, “that there is more pestiferous trash read … in July and August than in all the other 10 months of the year.”

Some 150 years later, “summer read” is still viewed by some as shorthand for inconsequential fluff. But Hilderbrand and her fans say they are not bothered by the label.

“I embrace the beach-read thing,” said Ruckert. “The books don’t need to solve all the world’s problems. Do they show women in a good light and show you how to persevere with family and friends? Yes. They give people hope and distraction and enjoyment.”

Laura Sullivan Davenport, director of employee communications for LinkedIn, who had traveled alone from San Francisco for the Bucket List weekend, found respite in Hilderbrand’s novels, too, especially during the past two years.

“I work so much. I’m on the computer all day and it’s stressful. Her books are light but they’re good. And the way she writes about women, I always find things I can relate to. It’s so good for my mental health to just kind of tune everything else out. That’s what they do.”

Hilderbrand is happy to be a conduit to escape, although she admits beach novels make up only a fraction of the 40 to 45 books she reads a year. “I read very literary fiction. It’s the only way to get better.”

Hilderbrand, who has designs on becoming a major book influencer—à la actress Reese Witherspoon—in her retirement, recommends mostly female novelists on her Instagram account and through her online book club with Literati, a subscription service that matches readers with celebrity curators. Still, she cites J.D. Salinger, John Updike, and John Cheever as early inspirations.

“Susan Cheever is a huge fan. She’s told me she sees her father’s influence in my writing. That feels amazing. I don’t get a lot of that kind of credit,” she said. “That’s another thing that makes me want to retire. I don’t want to lose that quality. I just know it’s not forever.”

Hilderbrand doesn’t rule out writing more books—maybe a cookbook or a memoir, maybe even another Nantucket novel someday. But for now, much of her attention is on the several projects she has in development in Hollywood, including the recently greenlit Netflix adaptation of The Perfect Couple, her 2018 whodunit. That six-part series will begin filming this spring.

“The most important thing to me is that they do Nantucket right,” she said. “I don’t want people who have lived out in ’Sconset for 45 years to come up to me and say, ‘You ruined it.’”

The Bucket List Weekenders are taking their last photos on the hotel front porch. They’ve packed away their “I’d Rather Be Living in an Elin Hilderbrand Novel” tote bags. They’re saying good-bye to new friends. They know they may not see each other again, at least not in real life. Hilderbrand has announced she’ll do only one or two more of these getaways—and of course, there’s that crazy waitlist to contend with.

They’d walked the cobblestone streets Hilderbrand’s characters walked, seen the beaches and (mostly boarded-up) bistros where they’d canoodled. They’d shopped in seasonal boutiques that had reopened one afternoon just for them—such is the power of the author—for the Bucket List “Sip ’n Shop.” And they’d closed—closed!—the Chicken Box with Hilderbrand, then rallied for afternoon beers with her at Cisco Brewers. Many of them hadn’t danced—or drunk—like that in years. Even in bleakest January, they’d fallen hard for Nantucket, or at least Elin Hilderbrand’s version of it.

“I absolutely loved it,” said Sullivan Davenport after she’d returned home. “I want a house there. Just a cute cottage, you know, it doesn’t have to be on the water. The island has such a romantic feel to it. I’m single. I got divorced a few years ago. Maybe if I had a house on Nantucket, I’d go and meet my future husband and we’d have a lot of money and….”

The plot could only thicken.

“Elin gave me the name of a real estate agent.”

Weekends with Yankee Bonus!
Watch Elin give co-host Richard Wiese an insider’s look at Nantucket in this season three episode.