A note from the Books editors: This year, we’re starting a series of editors’ choices of books they enjoy. Twice a month, members of the editorial board will recommend some of their favourite reads. Spanning novels, short stories, poetry, and non-fiction, we hope this series inspires you to pick up something new.
Before we know it, the summer months will be marching upon us, bringing with them carefree days full of scant clothing, balmy evenings, sunrises over the cathedral, picnics by the river, and post-exam prosecco. The air will be filled with warmth, freshly mown grass, cigarette smoke, and promise. At least, this is the image that memory holds for me. But memory is a funny thing: there is something about a long, hot summer that casts a shimmering veil over every recollection, softening sharp edges and leaving you with an uneasy nostalgia that follows you throughout the winter months. Of course, each summer never quite lives up to the one before.
It is little wonder that the motif of summer and the unreliability of memory and perception has inspired a number of writers; the idea of relentless heat rolling on, day-by-day, while something sinister bubbles underneath the surface, is creative fuel. Over the course of these novels, characters blister and burn and are gradually brought to a boiling point under the summer sun. Best read on a warm August day, when the descriptions on their pages most easily spill out into reality.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
‘The accumulated inactivity of the summer weeks since finals also hurried her along; since coming home, her life had stood still, and a fine day like this made her impatient, almost desperate.’
Part One of McEwan’s Atonement takes place on a country estate in the summer of 1935. The perspective shifts between Briony, an imaginative 13 year old, and Cecilia, her recently graduated older sister. McEwan explores how a situation of emerging latent sexual desire is perceived through the eyes of a child, with catastrophic consequences: Briony’s misunderstanding of the simmering lust between Cecilia and Robbie, their housekeeper’s son, leads to a terrible mistake which affects the rest of their lives. The remaining two parts of the novel are preoccupied with the Second World War – a darkness in contrast to the glare of part one – but the memories of that summer and its fateful repercussions continue to haunt the characters.
Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
‘Out there the hot light clipped close her shadow and she retreated – it was too bright to see. Fifty yards away the Mediterranean yielded up its pigments, moment by moment, to the brutal sunshine; below the balustrade a faded Buick cooked on the hotel drive.’
Fitzgerald’s most famous depiction of a summer of hedonism is The Great Gatsby, but Tender is the Night is equally interesting to consider because of its parallels with his own relationship with his wife, Zelda. Like all of his work, themes of passion, luxury, secrecy, and the deception of memory form its foundation. At the start of the novel, Rosemary, a famous actor, arrives on the French Riviera and becomes instantly infatuated with Dick and Nicole Diver, two glamorous socialites. At first glance, the Divers’ relationship seems idyllic – they appear deeply in love – but Rosemary gradually senses that there is something deeply disturbing going on. While we see the Divers’ relationship through the eyes of an outsider, the rest of the characters, deceived by a glorious summer in the South of France, can only view them through a charmingly distorted lens.
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.’
Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel depicts a young woman called Esther, her summer internship at a magazine in New York City, and her subsequent descent into depression. The theme of summer and its sinister underbelly is apparent from the opening line – Esther is engrossed with the idea of death and does not understand why she cannot just enjoy herself alongside the other interns. She compares her depression to the sensation of being trapped under a bell jar, where the world around her looks like a ‘bad dream’. Her internal narrative is so overpowering that she appears detached from the rest of the characters, adding to the overall impression of isolation. Behind the glass of a bell jar, images distort and perspective shifts – the memory of a hazy, sultry summer has the same effect.
It is a testament to the hypnotic power of summer that, although these novels all deal with serious issues, I associate them nostalgically with a happy time of my life. While the magic of a long, hot summer is irresistible, it is important to remember that perception is everything – and nothing is ever quite what it seems in the summer months.
Image: Thought Catalog via Unsplash