I somehow missed the memo and didn’t realize until I was well into my forties what summer reading is all about. And it was Jess Walter who made the wake-up call.
The year that Beautiful Ruins made a splash, I read to page fifty-eight and then threw in the towel. I was confused in the first few chapters because it seemed so very important that we know exactly how old everyone is. Awkwardly.
I had made a deal with myself. I’d keep reading if, in chapter three, we didn’t have any more of these embarrassments: “they watched the slender twenty-one-year-old rearrange rocks,” or “Leslie, the twenty-four-year-old daughter of his former law partner,” or “Here she was, barely twenty-eight,” or “Not quite thirty, Shane Wheeler is tall.”
But then I got to this: “It was while comforting his wife over Roberto’s death that the forty-one-year-old Carlo had somehow mustered one last, good seed and passed it on to the thirty-nine-year-old Antonia.”
That was it. I’d hit the nope moment. I just didn’t care how old everyone was, and last, good seed? Forty-one?! Anyone who’s seen When Harry Met Sally knows that Charlie Chaplin still had babies in his 80s. Although he was too old to pick them up, still—viable seed.
Sorry, Roberto and Antonia. Just. No.
Everyone loved this book! What was I missing? I’ll tell you what: alcohol. And a lounge chair and a beach and the scent of sunscreen and sunshine glinting off a large body of water and the gentle sound of lapping waves. But mostly alcohol.
I’m positive that if I’d been a tiny bit tipsy, I would not have gotten my knickers into such a royal twist about the hyphenated-ages-as-adjectives thing.
In fact, I’d been doing the summer reading thing all wrongedy-wrong for my whole life. For instance, once, a long while ago, in a used bookstore, I happened across a boxed set of CDs, Alan Rickman reading The Return of the Native. Alan Rickman! So of course I bought it, and I listened to his glorious mellifluity while I was doing household chores.
Not only was I not doing light reading during the summers, but I was also torturing my children with dead white dude literature. (Pronounce that in your head as LIT-ruh-chuh for the proper effect.)
Actually, I didn’t think the boys were listening, but then one day I was running errands with son 2.o, who was probably about eleven at the time. We were just leaving our third stop when he turned to me and said, “Are we almost done? I want to go home and hear Eustacia die… die… DIE!” His eyes were wild and he did a little leap in the air with the last roaring DIE, throwing his arms up.
Thank the gods for the resilience of childhood. And—spoiler alert—for Eustacia’s well-deserved, satisfying demise. And for Arthur Ransome, whose Swallows and Amazons helped me redeem myself with the boys.
I mean, I got it that children’s books were appropriate light summer reading, but I didn’t figure out the grownup summer book thing until much later. And, worse, I was so turned off by “the last, good seed,” I had written off Mr. Walter altogether. But now that I’ve discovered the secret—a book engaging enough to hold the interest, but light enough to track while slightly buzzed—I might give him another whirl. His collection of stories, We Live in Water, was recommended by a Riot Reader. And while that collection may not be summer reading, per se, my attitude adjustment has helped me to learn a tiny bit of charity.
It’s a typical summer day here, overcast, and we’re expecting a high temperature of sixty-one. (We’re breaking sixty!) So I might be missing the water and sunshine and booze, but I’ve got a lounge chair and sleeping bag. And hot cocoa is pretty delish. Basically, I’m all set.
Also, listen to Alan Rickman. But wait until November, around Guy Fawkes Night, because context matters. Trust me on this one. You won’t be sorry.