Saturday, July 26, 2008

Summer of Fun? Nah...

when I picked up Brian Groh's Summer People at the library, it sounded like a pormising summer read. For one thing, it had the word right in the title. For another, it was set in a wealthy summer community in Maine near the beach. It looked like it could be funny and emotional all at once, being as it was the story of a middle-class boy (Nathan) who gets a job as the companion of elderly Ellen and juggles his duties with a budding romance with the nanny of some children a few doors down. It sounds like the kind of summer everyone would like to have, and certainly the kind I'd like to read about.

It turns out that there's one person who wouldn't enjoy that kind of summer, and that's Nathan, the main character. If we're ever given Nathan's age, I missed it, but I'm guessing he's somewhere between 21 and 25. His existence back home will probably strike a chord with most people who are that age, or remember being that age: he has a crappy part-time job in a library, lives with several friends with disgusting habits in a run-down apartment, and has just lost his girlfriend. He carries this misery with him up to Maine and remains sullen, self-absorbed and unhappy throughout the book. His (somewhat clumsily set up) relationship with Leah brings him no pleasure, nor do the surroundings. He doesn't fit in, he's self-absorbed and doesn't really seem to bond with Ellen at all.

I disliked Nathan. I would like to arrange for a literary blind date with him and G from Citizen Girl, except for the fact that they're so much alike they'd wind up hating each other, and that they're so self-centered that neither of them would probably be aware of the fact that they're on a date. As the summer wears on, it becomes apparent that Ellen's not really capable of looking after herself anymore, and probably shouldn't be left alone at all. Yet Nathan doesn't really bother to tell anyone that, except for his father because he wants to sound like a martyr (I swear that's what the text said). Why? His precious summer, with his precious Leah (the nanny) would be cut short. When Ellen falls and hurts herself badly, his primary concerns are whether or not he'll get in trouble because of it, and what will become of his date with Leah now that he has to go to the hospital.

This book wasn't all bad, though -- after all, I did finish the damn thing. I liked the overall feel to it, of summers on the coast of Maine, the boats and tennis and drinks on manicured lawns at night, the peace and quiet of it all. I also liked the characters that floated around the edges of the story. There aren't really many books about old people, unless you count the variety where the narrator is looking back on an event that happened fifty years ago or more. Although Ellen's a frail old woman, she's also somewhat of a silver fox, having been the longstanding object of one neighbor's desire while carrying on an affair with another neighbor. The people in Ellen's tangled love affairs crouch at the edges of Nathan's self-created dramas with Leah and his ex-girlfriend, as if to say when Nathan complains of his misery, "Son, you have no idea."

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