On our recent vacation, we spent hours in the car. We drove hundreds of miles to bicycle trails, mainly rails-to-trails, because they’re relatively flat and easy to ride. Once on the trails, we pedaled, looked at cows, rode through avenues of trees, listened to frogs in ponds, and occasionally climbed uphill for what seemed like hours.
So what did I read in the car? I know that’s your first question, since I’m not a poet and can’t describe the beauty of the landscape. Well, I very much enjoyed Emylia Hall’s The Book of Summers, a novel I bought BECAUSE I LIKED THE COVER.
Hall’s engaging first novel is lyrical and heartrending. Many of us–half?–come from “broken families.” Although we’re “assimilated,” because divorce is an accepted rite of passage (and, indeed, often a necessary one), we pay an emotional price (not alimony). This novel is an emotional read, because it is about that price.
In The Book of Summers, Hall delineates the effect of divorce on the likable narrator, Beth, who, at 30, is single, works in an art gallery in London, and is numb about family. Relationships are hard for Beth. When she was nine, her hippie-ish mother, Marika, a Hungarian émigré, eagerly planned a family vacation to Hungary after watching the Berlin Wall fall on TV. On vacation, she walked out on Beth and her father, explaining she finally felt free and would stay in Hungary.
Back in Devon, Beth desperately longs for her mother, because her father is dry and inarticulate. For the next seven summers she visits Marika and her lover, Zoltan, an artist, for a week (later two) at their country house in Hungary, Villa Serena.
But then the relationship shatters.
We meet Beth at 30, awaiting a visit from her father.
Family. A word that has always sat so uneasily with me. For other people it may mean rambling dinners with elbows on tables and old jokes kneaded and pulled like baking dough. Or dotty aunts and long-suffering uncles, awkwardly shaped shift dresses and craggy mustaches, the hard press of a well-meant hug. Or just a house on the street. Handprints pushed into soft cement. The knotted, fraying ropes of an old swing on an apple bough. But for me? None of that. It’s a word that undoes me. Like the snagging of a thread on a sweater that runs, unraveling quickly, into the cup of your hands.”
When Beth’s father brings her a parcel from Hungary, she is upset and furious. She has had no contact with her mother since she was 16. But after he leaves, she opens a letter from her mother’s lover, Zoltan, informing her that Marika died of a heart attack. He has enclosed a beautiful scrapbook made by Marika, entitled The Book of Summers, its cover painted with flowers and flourishes. The book is a record of Marika’s memories of her seven summers with Beth. Inside are photos of Beth and Marika, drawings Beth made, and other odds and ends.
Are you sobbing yet?
The photographs evoke memories, and as Beth looks at The Book of Summers, she remembers each summer in detail. The memories are vivid, poetic, colorful, and slightly sentimental.
Beth loves Marika’s spontaneity, her arty embroidered clothes and sandals, her attempts at abstract painting, and her ostensible inability to make shopping lists, with the result that she comes home with random groceries, sometimes just wine and flowers. Beth can be emotional in Hungary, swims in a beautiful pool in the woods, adores the markets and food, and has her first boyfriend. She wants to be Hungarian, until she learns a family secret.
Marika is a problematic character. She is free, generous, a hippie type, but she never comes to life on the page the way Zoltan does, the warm, accepting artist who does not resent the disruption of the child’s visit on vacations. Marika is portrayed as a Hungarian earth mother, an emotional, kind, follow-your-heart type. (She keeps saying, “Follow your heart.”) I do understand from this novel how different, how much warmer, Beth finds this culture than England. Still, I wanted to see what Marika is like beneath the surface.
A little more about Beth’s adult life would also have been welcome, and I’m not quite sure we needed seven summers of childhood. (Maybe five or six?) But this is not really the kind of book that invites criticism.
It’s a very likable novel, graceful and entertaining, about the very real complications of family life.