A grim New England tragedy — Boston’s devastating 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire — plays a pivotal role in J. Courtney Sullivan’s first-rate, fast-moving new novel, “Maine.”

“Maine,” which follows Sullivan’s earlier novel, “Commencement,” is no unbroken lament for times gone by or for the record number of men and women — 492 — who died in that historic fire. The writer, who has spent time on the Maine coast, has a modern-day fictional story to tell. As sunny as it is shadowed, “Maine” is a terrific book to take to the beach or wherever else you may be going this summer.

It offers a large and colorful portrait of three generations of women in an Irish family with a seaside summer home and cottage in southern Maine.

The oldest of the women, Alice, the mother and grandmother, was at the Cocoanut Grove on that fateful November night almost 69 years ago. So was her sister, Mary. Mary did not survive and, for decades, the living sister has blamed herself for Mary’s death. That self-inflicted guilt colors much of her life, and affects the lives of her children and grandchildren more than they perceive.

The result for readers is a page-turner. Here is a story about family tensions and conflict that integrates a historic tragedy into a family’s troubled evolution in a secluded beachfront compound where, for 60 years, its members have looked to the sun, sea and salt air to nourish their souls.

That setting put to use in that traditional way may sound all too familiar. The search for love and family unity has long found its way in fiction to Maine’s coastal enclaves. Indeed, it is difficult to drive along Shore Road in Ogunquit or along the coastal route from Kennebunk to Perkin’s Cove and not wonder how many tensions simmering in Sullivan’s fictional Kelleher family would strike matching chords in the handsome homes along those routes. Grafting her seacoast story to the historic Boston fire, however, creates a special arc for Sullivan’s novel.

For many who grew up in New England (including Maine) who are aware from early childhood of the Cocoanut Grove’s destruction, the details of how panic, misjudgments and mistakes contributed to such a massive loss of life became a cloud on group memory, even on childhood itself.

As this book suggests, “the fire chief told the Boston Globe that really, the fire in the (heavily decorated) nightclub hadn’t been so particularly bad. If people hadn’t panicked and flooded the sole exit, if they had allowed the firemen in, if they (the fire fighters) hadn’t had to dig through heaps of bodies at every door to reach the fire, he estimated there would have been at most a handful of deaths.” Instead, there were 492.

Yet the disaster also left a life-saving legacy. As Sullivan tells us, “everyone always said that it led to new fire codes across the country and innovations in burn treatment. That you’d never find a door in Boston that opened inward, or a revolving door anywhere that wasn’t flanked by two regular doors, because of it.”

That is the intriguing history that threads its way through the pages of Sullivan’s novel. But it is background to a world of fiction. Woven through the lives of the Kelleher women, from grandmother Alice to her daughter Kathleen, granddaughter Maggie and daughter-in-law Ann Marie, are secrets, loves and betrayals large and small. Hopes blossom. Dreams fade. Expectations are forced to change. And love finds its way to unexpected harbors.

Calm waters and chaotic waves. Gray skies and sunburned beaches. Fear. Hope. Vision. Forgiveness and courage. Blending history and imagination, “Maine” gives us compelling echoes of the real Maine behind its name.

Nancy Grape writes book reviews for The Maine Sunday Telegram.