Sweet memories, ambitious plans and 23 books we’ve loved so far this year
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.
SUMMERLONG By Dean Bakopoulos Ecco. 354 pp. $26.99