Novel draws on summer spent with upper crust

To avoid offending anyone, Groh gives Maine town fake name

Posted: Friday, April 20, 2007

LAWRENCEBURG, Ind. - Brian Groh's first job out of college sounds like something out of a novel - a summer spent mixing with society's upper crust in one of Maine's picture-postcard resort towns as he cared for an aging, sometimes erratic, matriarch.

That summer caregiver job earned him about $8,000 for two months' work and came with a room in the woman's grand oceanfront home.

But it proved far from idyllic. The 70-something woman Groh looked after was in such a deteriorated mental state that he almost became her baby sitter. Nevertheless, he found time to mingle with the affluent summer crowd and even discovered romance there.

More than a decade later, Groh, 34, has spun those experiences into "Summer People," a debut novel published by HarperCollins that's loosely based on some of the privileged people he met in that summer retreat.

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To avoid offending anyone, Groh gave the town in southern Maine a fictional name. The real town is straight out of a Land's End catalog, he said, with wealthy summer residents who spend their time yachting, trading volleys at tennis clubs and lounging on sun-kissed beaches.

Groh said it was a beautiful but profoundly strange setting in stark contrast to his middle-class upbringing in Cincinnati. The well-to-do residents he met passed their days in leisure and nights at cocktail parties. Sometimes, they were snobbish or condescending.

"Those experiences just kind of deeply embedded themselves in my psyche, so that I couldn't stop thinking about them," said Groh. "It was a breathtakingly beautiful community with these majestic clapboard homes that all seemed to have incredible views of the Atlantic. And people unlike any I had ever encountered."

Groh finished the manuscript last year and sent it to several agents, all of whom rejected it. He revised it and sent it out again, but this time it found an agent and a publisher.

Lee Boudreaux, an editor at HarperCollins' Ecco imprint, said she liked "Summer People" from its first page and found it nicely paced with "old-fashioned storytelling." The protagonist, college dropout Nathan Empson, was appealing, she said, in part because he is an outsider in an alien setting of incredible wealth.

"That's a universal story - being the outsider. It's sort of an evergreen topic, that notion of 'Am I passing enough? Can I fit in?"' she said.

"You can't underestimate how much people like to read about themselves," she said.

Groh, meanwhile, is set to make a series of promotional appearances that will carry him this summer into Maine.

He said getting "Summer People" published has been an "enormous relief" and that his belief that it would someday make it to print helped carry him through years of arduous work.

"You have to have a kind of doggedness - a kind of almost stupid doggedness - that no matter what amount of rejection comes, you're going to continue to do what seems fun to you," he said.

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