Midsummer en­chant­ment

Sweet mem­o­ries, am­bi­tious plans and 23 books we’ve loved so far this year

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY RON CHARLES

Sum­mer read­ing is the Gspot of Amer­i­can pub­lish­ing — much ru­mored, never ver­i­fied. Yet the ex­cite­ment inspired by the idea of sum­mer read­ing re­mains strong, linked to all kinds of hal­cyon fan­tasies: This July, we’ll fi­nally get in shape; we’ll leave the lap­top at home; we’ll catch up on Karl Ove Knaus­gaard’s “My Strug­gle” so that we can stop pre­tend­ing to have read it. ¶ But de­spite our best in­ten­tions to lug tomes to Cape Cod, book sales don’t peak in the sum­mer. That comes later, dur­ing the cooler hol­i­days. This month, though, the usual trends may be dis­torted by two pe­cu­liar block­busters — both tied to ear­lier nov­els — that have driven read­ers into a frenzy of de­sire. ¶ The first, Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watch­man,” hasn’t even been pub­lished yet, but it’s al­ready gen­er­ated more cov­er­age than all the other books in the history of the world. (I ex­ag­ger­ate, but only slightly.) While spec­u­la­tion con­tin­ues about Lee’s in­ten­tions, this new/old se­quel to “To Kill a Mock­ing­bird” is the No. 1 pre­selling print book of the year on Ama­zon. You’ll fi­nally be able to walk around in Scout’s adult shoes when “Go Set a Watch­man” is re­leased July 14. ¶ The sec­ond uni­corn buck­ing sales this sum­mer is “Grey,” E.L. James’s re­turn to the sex­ual ini­ti­a­tion of Anas­ta­sia Steele. In this newly re­cy­cled ver­sion, James retells the story of “Fifty Shades” from the point of view of Chris­tian, the hand­some bil­lion­aire who gets all tied up in knots about sex. Since its rap­tur­ous un­veil­ing on June 18, James’s new novel has sold 1.7 mil­lion copies. ( Holy cow!)

But maybe your own In­ner God­dess craves some­thing a bit less hy­per­ven­ti­lated for these hot months: a beach read that holds up in bright light. You’ve come to the right spot. This spe­cial sec­tion of Book­World of­fers all kinds of great rec­om­men­da­tions and re­flec­tions on sum­mer read­ing.

One novel you might tuck in your bag for pool­side di­ver­sion is “Sum­mer­long,” a sexy but sur­pris­ingly poignant new novel by Dean Bakopou­los. This is a story for adults about adults gone wild. Bakopou­los, who teaches at Grin­nell Col­lege, sets his tale in that Iowa­town in the sum­mer of 2012. As the tem­per­a­ture rises, Don and his wife, Claire, are fail­ing and flail­ing. “Sum­mer­long” con­tains such re­veal­ing de­pic­tions of the un­equal du­ties of fathers and moth­ers that you’ll want to laugh or weep, depend­ing, I sup­pose, on whether you’re a fa­ther or a mother.

Claire is a writer who hasn’t writ­ten any­thing since the cou­ple’s young chil­dren were born, but noth­ing else gives her plea­sure any­more. “This,” Claire thinks, “is the curse of her life: ev­ery­one around her de­mand­ing re­as­sur­ance, as if there is a bot­tom­less well of it, as if there is noth­ing that scares or over­whelms her, as if she is a source of end­less cud­dles, back­rubs, and sooth­ing tones.”

Don, mean­while, is do­ing no bet­ter. He clings to his pri­vate melan­choly while show­ing the world a pho­to­genic smile. But even that fa­cade is threat­ened: His real es­tate busi­ness is so slow that he and Claire are about to lose their house. Their mar­riage, like their mort­gage, is es­sen­tially de­funct, drawn along only by in­er­tia and false prom­ises. When Claire asks, “Why are we still mar­ried?” Don’s stumped.

That premise­may sound a bit dreary for the ca­bana, but the story be­gins with a kind of midsummer night’s dream, with vi­sions and prophe­cies on the first night the fire­flies ap­pear. “The night they re­turn is a night of up­heaval,” says a dy­ing old woman in town. “Al­ways. It brings pro­found change.”

Ex­hibit A: Out for a walk that evening, Don stum­bles upon a gor­geous young woman sprawled in the park. He knows her name “in the strange, os­motic way peo­ple in a small town know things about per­fect strangers,” and she knows his from bill­boards around town. Soon they’re smok­ing pot and spend­ing the night in a ham­mock.

That’s okay be­cause Don’s wife is home with the kids— only she’s not. She’s mop­ing around on her own late-night lark. While con­tem­plat­ing her wasted life, she bumps into a hand­some young ac­tor who’s just come back to Grin­nell to ready his fa­ther’s house for sale. Long­ing to do some­thing — any­thing — that might dis­pel her quiet des­per­a­tion, she throws her tank top at him and runs off into the dark.

This steamy night tan­gles up limbs and scram­bles minds. Over the next few months, Don strives to save his mar­riage, but he has no idea how. Claire can’t re­sist that hot young ac­tor (does he not own a shirt?), but her feel­ings for Don won’t en­tirely evap­o­rate ei­ther. The re­sult is some­times like a French sex farce on the plains of Iowa: lots of skinny dip­ping and part­ner swap­ping and ac­ci­den­tal en­coun­ters — all some­how, mirac­u­lously, tech­ni­cally adul­tery- free. (“Sum­mer­long” also in­cludes the first erotic tryst I’ve en­coun­tered in IKEA. Those tiny model homes will never feel the same.)

Bakopou­los’s great­est tal­ent is his abil­ity to mix rib­ald com­edy with heart­felt sor­row. Even amid all the bed-hop­ping, Don’s pretty new friend is spin­ning through cy­cles of sui­ci­dal de­pres­sion, while Claire’s boy-toy is dis­cov­er­ing what a pa­thetic phi­lan­derer his dy­ing fa­ther was. All of these char­ac­ters teeter be­tween de­spair and bliss. That’s a dan­ger­ous con­coc­tion that risks mak­ing light of their grief, but Bakopou­los is some­thing of a ma­gi­cian him­self.

“We need to be less crazy. We need to be hap­pier,” Claire says, “what­ever hap­pens next.” Find­ing out­howthese des­per­ate dream­ers get through their sum­mer of love and love­less­ness will make your own even more re­fresh­ing.

GALLERY STOCK

PHILIPP NEMENZ

SUM­MER­LONG By Dean Bakopou­los Ecco. 354 pp. $26.99

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