Home > The Identicals

The Identicals
Author: Elin Hilderbrand


Like thousands of other erudite, discerning people, you’ve decided to spend your summer vacation on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. You want postcard beaches. You want to swim, sail, and surf in Yankee-blue waters. You want to eat clam chowder and lobster rolls, and you want those dishes served to you by someone who calls them chowdah and lobstah. You want to ride in a Jeep with the top down, your golden retriever, named Charles Emerson Winchester III, riding shotgun. You want to live the dream. You want an American summer.

But wait! You’re torn. Should you choose Nantucket… or Martha’s Vineyard? And does it really matter? Aren’t the islands pretty much the same?

We chuckle and smirk at the assumption, shared by so many. Possibly you’re not familiar with the bumper sticker (a bestseller at the Hub on Main Street and proudly displayed on the vehicles of nearly every islander of distinction, including the director of the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce) that reads: GOD MADE THE VINEYARD… BUT HE LIVES ON NANTUCKET.

If you’re not swayed by that kind of shameless propaganda, then consider the vital statistics:

Nantucket Island

Settled: 1659

Original inhabitants: Wampanoag Indians

Distance from Hyannis: 30 miles

Area: 45 square miles

Population: 11,000 year-round; 50,000 summer

Number of towns: 1

Famous residents: Prefer not to be named

Martha’s Vineyard

Settled: 1642 (We say: “Age before beauty”)

Original inhabitants: Wampanoag Indians

Distance from Woods Hole: 11 miles (We say: “It’s practically the mainland!”)

Area: 100 square miles (We say: “Twice as big”)

Population: 16,535 year-round; 100,000 summer (We say: “Twice as many”)

Number of towns: 6 (We are speechless [!!!]—and can someone please tell us what is up with Chappaquiddick?)

Famous residents: Meg Ryan, Lady Gaga, Skip Gates, Vernon Jordan, Carly Simon, James Taylor, and… John Belushi, deceased and buried off South Road (They have Bluto; we say: “So what?”)

Is there any part of Martha’s Vineyard that can compete with our cobblestone streets or the stately perfection of the Three Bricks, the homes that whale-oil merchant Joseph Starbuck built for his three sons between 1837 and 1840? Does the Vineyard have an enclave of tiny rose-covered cottages—as whimsical as dollhouses—as we do in the picturesque village of ’Sconset? Does “MVY” have a protected arm of golden-sand beach, home to piping plovers and a colony of seals, as our northernmost tip, Great Point, does? Does it have a sweeping vista like the one offered across Sesachacha Pond toward the peppermint stick of Sankaty Head Lighthouse? Does it have a dive bar as glamorously gritty as the Chicken Box, where one can hear Grace Potter one week and Trombone Shorty the next? You might not want to get us started on the superiority of our restaurants. If it were our last night on earth, who among us could choose between the cheeseburger with garlic fries from the Languedoc Bistro and the seared-scallop taco with red cabbage slaw from Millie’s?

We understand how you might confuse those of us here with our compatriots there—after all, our region is lumped together as the Cape and the islands—but we are two distinct nations, each with its own ways, its own means, its own traditions, histories, and secrets, and its own web of gossip and scandal. Think of the two islands as you would a set of twins. Outwardly, we look alike, but beneath the surface… we are individuals.


There is a bumper sticker—a bestseller, according to the owner of Alley’s General Store—that reads: GOD MADE NANTUCKET, BUT HE LIVES ON THE VINEYARD. Some of us would have edited that bumper sticker to say BUT HE LIVES IN CHILMARK—because who wants to be lumped in with the honky-tonk shenanigans happening down island?

However, in the interest of keeping this a foreign war and not a civil one, let’s celebrate the reasons we’re superior to Nantucket. The Vineyard has diversity—of races, of opinions, of terrain. We have the Methodist campground, with its colorful gingerbread houses; the Tabernacle; Ocean Park; Inkwell Beach; Donovan’s Reef, home of the Dirty Banana—and that’s only in Oak Bluffs! We have dozens of family farms that harvest an abundance of organic produce; we have the Jaws Bridge and the cliffs of Aquinnah; we have East Chop, West Chop, the Katama airstrip, and a neighbor in Edgartown who keeps llamas on his front lawn. We have Chappaquiddick, which is a lot more than just the place where Teddy Kennedy may or may not have driven Mary Jo Kopechne to her death off the Dike Bridge. After all, there is a Japanese garden on Chappy! And if we let the air in our Jeep tires down to eleven pounds and pay two hundred dollars for a sticker, we can enjoy the wild, windswept beauty of Cape Poge.

We have rolling hills, deciduous trees, and low stone walls. We have Menemsha, the best fishing village in the civilized world, where one can get the freshest seafood, the creamiest chowder, and the crispiest, most succulent fried whole-belly clams. Have you never heard of the Bite? Larsen’s? The Home Port? These are iconic spots; these are legends.

We have the best celebrations: Illumination Night, the Ag Fair, the August fireworks. We aren’t sure what anyone celebrates on Nantucket other than being able to land a plane successfully at the airport despite the pea-soup fog or finally being able to find the correct shade of dusty pink on a pair of dress pants.

But what really makes the Vineyard special is the people. The Vineyard boasts a large and active population of middle-and upper-class African Americans. We have Brazilian churches. We also have celebrities, but you would never recognize half of them because they have to wait in line at “Back Door Doughnuts” and sit in traffic at Five Corners in Vineyard Haven just like everyone else.

Most of us have only been to Nantucket for one reason: the Island Cup. We won’t say anything about the football game itself, because no one likes a braggart, but every time we visit to cheer on our high school players, we can’t help wondering how our fellow islanders can bear to live on such a flat, barren, and foggy rock so far out to sea.

Still, there is a connection between us that’s hard to refute. Geologists suspect that as recently as twenty-three thousand years ago, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Cape Cod were all part of one landmass. It might be easier to think of us as sisters—twins, even—birthed by the same mother. We like to think of Martha’s Vineyard as the favorite.

But then, of course, Nantucket likes to think of herself as the favorite.


Reed Zimmer isn’t on call at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, June 16, when Harper Frost’s father, Billy, draws his final breath. Dr. Zimmer is at a picnic at Lambert’s Cove with his wife’s family; apparently they hold the same party every year at the start of summer—bonfire, potato salad, chicken blackening on the portable Weber grill. Sadie Zimmer’s brother, Franklin Phelps, is one of the Vineyard’s favorite guitar players—Harper always goes to hear him when he’s playing at the Ritz—and Harper imagines Dr. Zimmer, his feet buried in the cold sand, singing along with Franklin to “Wagon Wheel.”

Harper is still at her father’s bedside when she sends Dr. Zimmer a text. It says: Billy is gone. She imagines his shock followed by his guilt; he promised Harper it wouldn’t happen tonight. He told her that Billy still had time.

“Check in on him as usual,” Dr. Zimmer had said that afternoon when he rose from Harper’s bed, the white sheets tangled from their lovemaking. “But feel free to enjoy your weekend.” He had looked out her window at the lilac bush, which overnight, it seemed, had exploded into a show-offy bloom. “I can’t believe it’s all starting again. Another summer.”

Feel free to enjoy your weekend? Harper had thought. She hated when Reed talked to her as though she were merely his patient’s daughter, a virtual stranger—but isn’t she a stranger to him, in a way? Reed only sees Harper when she’s sitting by her father’s hospital bed or when they’re making love in her duplex. They don’t go on dates; they have never bumped into each other at Cronig’s; Reed claims he has never noticed her driving the Rooster delivery truck, even when she waves at him like a woman drowning. Harper and Reed have been sleeping together only since October, and so she isn’t sure what ‘another summer’ means to him. Today offered the first clue: his wife’s parents, the elder Phelpses, are now in residence at their house in Katama, recently arrived back from Vero Beach. There will be family obligations, such as this picnic, when it will seem as though Reed is living on another planet.

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