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Posts Tagged ‘Cape Cod’

camperdowns“It was June 4, 1972. The day started out peacefully enough, a creamy soft Sunday afternoon, a sweet do-nothing day. My mother called them tea-finger sandwich days. A day with the crust removed.”

This is Riddle James Camperdown looking back to the Cape Cod summer she was 12-almost-13, when her liberal father “Camp” was running for Congress with the passive-agressive help of her mother, icy blonde actress Greer Foley. This is when charismatic Michael Devlin, Camp’s former friend and Greer’s former fiance, re-enters their lives with his handsome college-age son Harry. This is when 15-year-old Charlie Devlin disappears. This is The Last Summer of the Camperdowns (Liveright/W.W. Norton, digital galley), the truly wonderful second novel by Elizabeth Kelly that I already have read twice and will probably re-read every summer.

Says Riddle near the book’s beginning: “I’m thirty three years old and the memory of that long-ago summer remains as alive to me as something I can reach out and touch. . .If only. If only I could somehow poke a hole through time and space and reach into that old house and shake that girl, slap her silly, tell her to shout out from the rooftops what she knew.”

Because Riddle knows what happened to young Charlie in the stables of a neighbor, although she tells herself she doesn’t, especially when around Gula, the sinister stable manager. Still, there’s a lot that precocious Riddle doesn’t know as regards her parents, the Devlins, and several secrets from the past. It’s The Great Gatsby meets Mad Men (Greer is sooo Betty Draper but wittier and wiser), and Kelly trods familiar coming-of-age territory. But her sharp, evocative writing makes The Last Summer of the Camperdowns seem singular. She describes one supporting character as “Slim and narrow, looking like something Evelyn Waugh might have doodled on a napkin during a lull at a dinner party.”  And the conversations among the characters, especially the Camperdowns, animate Riddle’s observations:   

“Did anyone ever tell the truth about anything? The adults around me loomed like tall trees that resisted climbing, pendulous, dark and mysterious. I was lost in their forest. I was lost to myself.”

yonahThea Atwell, the narrator of Anton DiSclafani’s ambitious first novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (Riverhead, digital galley) also wonders about the reliability of adults. Looking back to 1930 and the Great Depression, Thea recalls her 15-year-old “confused, wronged” self exiled to an exclusive girls’ school in the North Carolina mountains after a scandalous incident with a boy on her family’s Florida citrus estate.

Thea witholds the details of the incident, parceling them out in flashbacks from her Yonahlossee narrative so as to sustain suspense. But much can be guessed at because DiSclafani isn’t nearly as subtle with her hints as she is with her lyrical evocation of time and place. Thea, home-schooled with her twin brother Sam, initially feels like an outsider among the wealthy Southern debutantes, but she aligns herself with popular Sissy and her riding skills impress even the resident equestrian-goddess. She also gives riding lessons to the headmaster’s young daughters, which allows her more time with the handsome headmaster.

DiSclafani is better with girls and horses than she is with men and boys, and so Thea’s relationship with her classmates and horses is more richly delineated than her romances. “There was so much of the world to see, and most of us had never held a boy’s hand. We wanted to do more than that, anyway, we wanted boys to hold not just our hands but all of us, gather us into their sturdy arms and ring our slippery curls around their thick but tender fingers.”

But as much as Thea recklessly plays at desire and grapples with sexuality, she eventually realizes that knowing oneself begins at home and that there is plenty of blame to go around back in her beloved Florida. “Danger presented itself, every girl knew, from within the family — your father’s mistress; mother’s thorny relationship with her mother-in-law, your grandmother; the first cousin who had tried to kill himself. But we were no one, nothing, without our families.”

A year at Yonahlossee gives Thea the distance she needs to become someone in her own right, to go home again. And to leave by choice.

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Isabelle Stein, one of the main characters in Caroline Leavitt’s affecting new novel, Pictures of You, is an old-fashioned photographer, preferring film to digital.

“It’s richer,” she tells nine-year-old Sam Nash, showing him how to focus the camera and work the flash. “It shows more, I think.” Later, she adds, “Sometimes photographs show things that aren’t there, you have to look deeper, to see what might be hidden.”

Leavitt might well be describing her own skill as a writer, one not content with surface images. Pictures of You is a rich, nuanced  portrait of four lives intertwined by tragic coincidence: Two women fleeing their marriages on Cape Cod collide on a foggy road, and one dies. The survivor, stunned by a bevy of emotions, finds herself drawn to the dead woman’s confused, grieving husband and to her asthmatic son, who witnessed the accident.

But that summary doesn’t capture the intimacy with which the characters and their secret lives unfold in unexpected ways. Leavitt endows each with a complex back story as they try to move forward. Isabelle, always so resourceful, feels beaten down after the accident, which capped the wreck of her marriage. Charlie Nash doesn’t understand why his wife April had a suitcase for herself in the car but not one for Sam. And Sam — ah, Sam. Inhaler in hand, he braves bullies at school and clings to the notion that Isabelle, glimpsed on the roadside, is an angel who will somehow lead him to his mother.

It might sound grim, but it isn’t. It just feels real, with humor and hope glinting through the dark times. (Witness the essential role played by a tortoise named Nelson.) Leavitt cares about her flawed characters, and readers care, too.

“How did things happen?” Charlie muses to himself. He has tried to be a good guy. “You could be generous with the love you gave, with the care you took with others. You could follow all the commandments that made sense to you and still the world could sideswipe you. ” 

Charlie, Sam and Isabelle are left to pick up the pieces in surprising yet realistic ways. Leavitt’s picture of them is moving and memorable.

Open Book: I received an advance galley of Caroline Leavitt’s Pictures Of You (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). Caroline and I first exchanged e-mails when we were both reviewing for newspapers some years ago. Now we’re Facebook friends. I hope we actually meet someday so I can see the red cowboy boots she’s wearing on book tour.

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