You might have heard that the classic Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi” wouldn’t have been named for the line about her old man being chauffeured away if it wasn’t actually a love song disguised as an anthem against paving paradise.
Such is the case with “Save What’s Left,” a devilishly astute debut novel by a 33-year-old who grew up studiously observing the quirks of her North Fork hometown, a tiny hamlet that was once full of oyster shacks overlooking Cutchogue Harbor but is now facing unprecedented development.
The novel, which is being touted by publishers Anchor Books this summer as an “un-beach read,” is a love letter to author Elizabeth Castellano’s hometown, disguised as an outrageous comedy of errors populated with characters who all share echoes of people we actually know.
Ms. Castellano attended the three schoolroom schoolhouse in this unnamed burg of some 353 people (the place is called Whitby in the book, and as The Beacon’s office is in this hamlet, we intend to keep its true identity from those who don’t know where this place is).
“Never buy a beach house,” is the first line of the story, and it sucks you right into this “charming village” and its political turmoil. “Maybe it’s too late for you. Maybe you’ve gone ahead and picked up some starfish tchotchkes and turquoise nonsense and you feel you’re in too deep. Well, then let me tell you right now that those warm summer nights you’re dreaming about will be spent arguing over parking restrictions and beach access. You won’t paint or write or play tennis. You’ll be too busy filing code enforcement complaints in the town attorney’s office. You’ll wake up to the sound of leaf blowers and you’ll either spend half your life trying to protect a tree or cut one down.”
What’s so unique about this book is that it’s written by a young local about a middle-aged woman from Kansas who, in the midst of a divorce, buys an oyster shack here sight unseen, not knowing that a giant house, the “Sugar Cube,” is being built next door.
Residents of the real Whitby will recognize the inside drama at play in the Bay Mission, a non-profit attempting to preserve the waterfront of this hamlet using fundraising tactics that ensnare unsuspecting people into giving money to something other than what was proposed. The divorcée, Kathleen begins the story feeling bamboozled but ends up as the group’s fundraising director, as much in the thick of the local politics as anyone born and raised here.
This goes right back to lessons learned in the yard of the little red schoolhouse — in such a small place, you can’t afford to alienate your neighbors, and compromise and peace can come at the cost of honesty and integrity.
Ms. Castellano moved here from New York at a tender age at which she still remembered what it was like to live in a bigger place, but was young enough to enroll in elementary school and grow up surrounded by a handful of kids in a multiage classroom.
From the start, some things here struck her as strange. When her mother tried to get an appointment for a haircut, the hairdresser told her she’d add her to the waiting list for when another client died. A surprise group of Christmas carolers showed up on their doorstep their first winter here. A crew of women unfailingly walked down the center of the street at the exact same moment every single morning, followed by stragglers a minute later. There were just eight or nine other kids in the school at the same time as her, so if one fifth grader needed extra help to pass state exams, the entire class would work on that project for the day. Some days were spent entirely at the beach, walking distance from the school, where kids learned lessons in physics and marine biology, and in how to not make enemies of their few peers, or visiting the deep woods of Robins Island, a place few people have had a chance to see.
“It’s a place where you have to get along, even if you disagree,” said Ms. Castellano in an early June interview on the block where she grew up. “It’s a real team effort. You look out for the little ones, and we went everywhere. We were very free growing up here.”
Ms. Castellano’s mother had been a speech pathologist at PS 169 in Bayside, Queens, so she knew her daughter’s experience was not like it would have been growing up somewhere else.
Elizabeth was always a “very observational person,” adults around her told her, recognizing the trait of a writer. What’s popped out in this debut novel is a feat of observation.
“People are funny, all the time,” she said. “A lot of people don’t see it, but people are always so absurd.”
“It’s changed so much in the past 10 to 15 years,” she said of her hometown. “It’s crazy that it’s happened just in my lifetime.We’ve been discovered.”
Like a true local, Ms. Castellano cringes at real estate listings about houses near the “sugar sandy beach” where she spent her science classes, and is shocked at the wall to wall people she finds there on summer weekends. Southold Town had just put up the lifeguard stand the morning of our interview and she was shocked to find it was a different stand, half the height of the one that had guarded the beach for years and years.
These types of little details pervade “Save What’s Left.”
Set to be released just as beach season begins, this novel teases the clichés about formulaic beach reads in which recent divorcées find romantic bliss with the sand between their toes.
“I wanted to turn the beach read genre on its head, and show the other side of beach town life,” said Ms. Castellano. “I love this place, but I know it’s absurd.”
Ms. Castellano was an editor at Southold High School for the school newspaper, The Sentinel, and had a rotating column in The Suffolk Times while in high school. People would stop her to tell her they found it funny, but she still hadn’t defined herself as a writer. She headed to Bates College in Maine to study theater directing, then moved to New York. The pandemic brought her back home, where she fully realized that her surroundings would make for a rich novel.
Throughout her youth, Ms. Castellano drew inspiration from her neighbor, Elaine Romagnoli, an activist and nightclub owner in New York who lived in an oyster shack across the street, where she suffered through the reconstruction of a massive house next door. Ms. Romagnoli, who died in 2021, served as an inspiration for Ms. Castellano to keep writing.
“I spent a lot of my childhood hanging out in that house,” she said. “She was such a fun, interesting person, just a character with great stories who was always up for adventure.”
New to the publishing industry, and without a degree in writing, Ms. Castellano finished her manuscript and then set her mind to finding an agent. In short order, Suzanne Gluck took her on as a client, selling “Save What’s Left” as the first of a two-book deal to Anchor Books, and imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
“I was always focused on finding a literary agent quickly. I think this book hits a nerve. It’s about ‘how do people exist together?’” she said.
Now she’s focused on writing the second book, which is set in Ireland and has a younger protagonist.
Ms. Castellano was still a child when she first saw the “Save What’s Left” bumper stickers, long the tagline of the North Fork Environmental Council.
That ethos is baked into the North Fork’s spirit, and in this book it’s also a metaphor for holding together marriages and families and communities.
“How many people can we sustain here? What’s too much?” she asks. “If we keep bulkheading every property and building septic systems right on the water, there’s going to be an impact. And I’ve seen the water coming up so high, right to the road, over the road, over the past 25 years. We’re going to lose all our beaches.”
“The Hamptons owns who they are, but on the North Fork we’ve made being ‘quaint, charming and rural’ into big business,” she added. “If a pie is $40 or a muffin is $10, do we really have the moral high ground on the Hamptons? With AirBNB, every home is a business. People are flocking here, but who will be the stewards of the area?”
Ms. Castellano will have her first local book reading just after the books’ June 27 launch at Barnes & Noble in Riverhead on Wednesday, June 28 at 7 p.m. She will also be signing copies of the novel at Burton’s Books in Greenport on Sunday, July 2 from 2 to 5 p.m., and will read at Bookhampton in East Hampton on Wednesday, July 7 at 5 p.m. The novel is available everywhere books are sold.
For more information, visit www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/713329/save-whats-left-by-elizabeth-castellano/