Coming-of-age novel disturbing, satisfying
IN this engaging coming-of-age novel by Ontario author and journalist Elizabeth Kelly, you have a sense of being held by an archer who stretches the bow more and more tightly.
The story builds and grows with intensity and anticipation, like a literary detective novel.
When the arrow is finally released, near the end, you know that the dread, which has been building since Page 1, is merited. And this archer is one heck of a shot. The Last Summer of the Camperdowns is narrated by Riddle James Camperdown, an American girl who is named after her father’s hero, union leader James (“Jimmy”) Riddle Hoffa.
It is not entirely lost on the reader that Hoffa’s mysterious disappearance and presumed murder (indeed, authorities are still looking for his body) may not bode well for his namesake.
Riddle is a sophisticated storyteller who looks back from the distance of two decades on the events of the summer of 1972 when she was 13.
This beautifully written book is billed as being broad and comic. It’s not really funny or rollicking, although there are plenty of wry and witty descriptions.
Kelly’s 2009 debut novel, Apologize, Apologize! impressed readers with its rambling description of an Irish-American family dynasty, narrated by the son Collie who was named after a breed of dog.
From Camperdowns’ opening pages, the reader savours Kelly’s ability to evoke a character.
At the shabby old family summer house on the seaside at Cape Cod, Mass., Riddle is an only child who has grown up “in the exclusive company” of her parents. “I was attuned,” she says, “to all the things that tend to go unsaid between adults.”
Riddle’s father is Godfrey “Camp” Camperdown, a Second World War hero, songwriter and union idealist who comes from old money but has none left.
He is running for Congress. “Politics,” observes Riddle, “was an inherited affliction in our family, passed on like a weak chin from one generation to the next.”
Her mother, Greer, is a former Hollywood star with razor-sharp wit and little patience for housework or children. She is a horsewoman.
“If Cole Porter’s music could be taught to ride a horse,” Riddle notes, it would capture some of what my mother evinced in the saddle.”
Riddle describes her parents as having an “alchemical mix.” “To spend time with Greer and Camp,” she suggests, “was to experience first-hand the effects of a ping-pong marathon between two warring countries.”
Early in the summer of 1972, while Riddle is at the neighbour’s horse barn searching for a lost puppy, she hears and sees something she intuitively knows is horrific. But she is paralyzed by fear. What she has seen becomes unspeakable.
When the son of her father’s nemesis disappears, Riddle realizes she may know what happened. But she doesn’t say anything.
Riddle’s summer is a tortured season. The secrets of the past and present unravel while friendships and romances build and collapse.
If all you want in a novel is a rollicking good time, don’t read this strangely disturbing and satisfying novel. But if you want a feast of words, a complex plot and memorably drawn characters, The Last Summer of the Camperdowns is for you.