What I Did Last Summer

Chevy Chase LibraryRead Feed

What I Did Last Summer

Eight Books About "That One Summer"

There is a reason why “The Summer that Changed My Life” is a college admission essay staple.  For a young person, it's three whole months of relatively unstructured time.  Something interesting has to happen, right?  Novelists feel the same way.  There are so many novels that take place over a single summer.  Here is just a sample:  

The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
The Go-Between is part of the very specific sub-genre of "British kid discovers a secret one summer that changes everyone's life...forever."  (See also Atonement and... others.) Leo Colston, our narrator, looks back at his summer stay at his friend's estate when he was 12.  He is soon enlisted in delivering messages between his friend's sister Marian and her lover, Ted Burgess, a local farmer. (Another echo of Atonement: don't make precocious kids deliver letters for you. Just... don't.) Needless to say, things don't go as planned, but you can tell that from the first chapter.  Fifty-two years on, Leo is still suffering from the consequences.       

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead's excellent novel The Underground Railroad has the distinction of winning the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, as well as being a bestseller and an Oprah book club selection. Needless to say, this book is pretty popular here at the library.  While you are waiting for your hold to come in, may we suggest Whitehead's 2009 novel Sag Harbor?  Whitehouse's semi-autobiographical novel centers on the Cooper family, a black upper middle-class Manhattan family who vacation in the Hamptons every summer. Benji Cooper, the funny and observant narrator is sort of Colson Whitehead's stand-in.  Mr. and Mrs. Cooper have to go back to NYC during the week, leaving their kids alone in the beach house.  (Raise your hand if your parents were this trusting.) Luckily, Benji and Reggie have pretty standard summer adventures and they don't discover devastating secrets that they are too young to understand and go on to haunt their lives forever (I'm really starting to think that only happens to kids in British books.)  The charm of this book is it nails the small details of teenage life: the smell of your clothes after a fast food shift, the friend who is the group arbiter of taste, and the utter joy of getting your braces removed.  

Among the small details is the bigger theme of Benji's search for identity.  He lives in a world that can't seem to reconcile the concepts of "black" and "well-off", making a standard teenage problem so much harder.  In the Hamptons, unlike in New York City, he's with other teens in the same situation.  You can see why Whitehead would want to write about these summers

Little Children by Tom Perrotta
Not all of this books feature teens and children.  This one just has characters that ACT like children.  Sarah and Todd are two stay-at-home parents who don't know what to do with their lives.  As the summer drags on and they grow closer, they engage in an ill-advised affair.  Other characters are just obsessed with children. Larry, a retired policeman, is trying to assuage his guilt for accidentally shooting a child by obsessively harassing Ronnie, a pedophile who was just released from prison.  Mary Ann is a power-mom who is determined to get her four-year-old into Harvard.  

This book was published in 2004, but it is set the summer before 9/11. (The Chandra Levy case gets mentioned several times, so does pop culture of the era, so Perrotta wants to make sure the reader doesn't forget what time they are in.) I'm not 100% what Perotta's intent here is, but my guess is he meant to say that soon these characters will have to grow up, and grow up fast.    

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” 

So begins Sylvia Plath's 
semi-autobiographical novel about a young writer named Esther Greenwood.  Esther has won an internship at a women's magazine in New York City, which should make her excited, but it doesn't.  It really really doesn't.  In fact, she can't seem to work up much excitement for anything and she's not exactly sure why.  Her depression and confusion about her future only increases as the book goes on.  It's not the easiest thing to read, given Plath's history, but it's relatable.  Plath writes eloquently about a period of confusion a lot of young women go through and The Bell Jar's continued popularity kind of attests to that. 

The Girls by Emma Cline
Another book that isn't exactly a beach read. (Hey, I didn't say this was a list of beach reads. I said it was a list of books that take place in the summer. Big difference.)  Very loosely based on the Manson cult (and murders) of the late 60s, The Girls tells the story of Evie Boyd, a 14-year-old girl who gets taken in by a Manson-lite cult in the summer of 1969. However, the Manson stand-in, Russell, is sort of a background figure. Instead, the book focuses on Evie's fascination with (and love for) Suzanne, one of Russell's followers. Overall, the book cares primarily about its female characters (the clue is in the title) and the thousand small cuts that teenage girls are expected to endure in the process of growing up.  Cline's attempt to portray rage at misogyny as the hidden motivation for the murders is a bit of a reach (although The Girls is astoundingly good at portraying misogyny itself) the murders are sort of beside the point.  If you are looking for a thriller, look elsewhere.  If you are looking for a Virgin Suicides-like exploration of what it feels like to be a girl/woman, this is one of the best novels to come along in years.  

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman
Most of the books on this list have a summer romance or two (cue this song) but Call Me By Your Name is a straight-up, no-subplots romance.  The 2008 novel is narrated by Elio, who recounts the story of his romance with Oliver, an American grad student who stayed with his family in Italy the summer he was 17. It is an emotionally intense novel about first love and all the exhilaration, fear, and intimacy that comes with it.  The movie adaptation of Call Me By Your Name debuted at Sundance last winter to rave reviews.  It doesn't come out until November 2017, but I'm calling it now: the book is better. 

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Often in contention for "The Great American Novel", Gatsby is, at the very least, "The Great American Summer Novel". Gatsby, for those who don't know (who are you?), is the story of Jay Gatsby and his all all-consuming love for the wealthy (and married) Daisy Buchanan, his former lover. The story of Gatsby's attempt to win back Daisy over the course of a summer is told through the eyes of Nick, Daisy's less wealthy cousin.  Apparently it was an especially hot summer too. At times just reading it can make you want to turn on the air conditioner. The characters complain about the heat more than 10 times over the course of one chapter (and I'm not counting Nick observations).  It's no wonder that when one character tells another: "You look so cool.....You always look so cool." It comes across as the highest complement as well as a revealing declaration of love.  

It by Stephen King
Remember back when you were a kid and you and your friends would hang out to fight a deathless, ageless, shape-shifting monster? Good times. However, in the summer of 1958, 11-year-olds Ben, Bill, Beverly, Mike, Richie, Eddie and Stan end up doing just that, in between normal kids' stuff like hiding from bullies and building forts. It's a testament to Stephen King's talent that It often feels exactly like a child's experience of summer vacation. (The passage that details Ben Hansom's visit to the public library is a personal favorite of mine, but then it would be).  This verisimilitude makes the addition of the titular, difficult-to-Google monster known as "It" all the more frightening.