At least in the Northern Hemisphere, this week feels like summer’s apogee, complete with record heat and bad weather. To me, the 4th of July is to summer what Christmas is to winter: once it’s over, the season and its weather feel overwrought and pointless, except the 4th of July is nowhere near as fun as Christmas, so what’s the point at all?
Can you tell I’m not a summer person? Maybe it comes from growing up lackadaisically homeschooled: the season doesn’t have the same lazy magic when you’re off school all year round. Instead it’s just too hot, too sticky, and too full of bugs. Swimming’s good, though.
As it turns out, the reading’s good, too. Summer seems to inspire more great novels than any other season. The claustrophobic heat, the long vacations full of people you’ll never meet again, the bone-deep languor, no school, sleepaway camp, the smell of the chlorine at the community pool, the beach…it’s all a recipe for stories as thick with tension and unrequited feelings as pea soup.
In honor of what I’m officially dubbing Peak Summer Week, I’ve compiled some of my very favorite books about summer and its aftermath below.
A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe
This novel is set in Australia, so summer is turned on its head, at least as far as the calendar year goes. If you’re an American reader like me (especially one from the frigid North), you’ll probably be charmed by the idea of a blazingly hot December in the bush. If you celebrate Christmas, it’s especially weird to read about how different seasonal tradition becomes when it’s 90+° Fahrenheit outside instead of -28°, like it was this year where I live.
But A Loving, Faithful Animal‘s appeal goes way beyond that novelty. It explores what happens to a family when a father, tormented by his memories of service in the Australian military during Vietnam, runs away one last time. It’s about a once-privileged mother, viciously abused by her husband, who’s desperately trying to hold it together. It’s about two sisters trying to escape the gravity of poverty and desperation. It’s one of the best novels about the working class that I’ve ever read (though even that’s an oversimplification) and it’s a gorgeous summertime coming-of-age novel, too. Just read it.
September Girls by Bennett Madison
To say this book is polarizing would be an understatement. If you look at its Goodreads page, it’s a pretty even mix of 1-star reviews and 5-star reviews. The biggest critique of it seems to be that it’s piggishly sexist, but one of the biggest praises of is that it deftly deconstructs sexism. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear where you fall in the comments below, but I, for one, unabashedly love this book.
It’s a YA novel (with lots of crossover appeal for adults, too) about teenaged Sam, who gets whisked off to a beach vacation with his brother by their absent-minded father. The town is full of Girls: beautiful blondes who occupy every possible summer job in town. When Sam begins to fall for Dee Dee, one of the Girls, he uncovers a bizarre secret: they’re all mermaids. The secret is mermaids! And if you’re thinking that a coming-of-age story about a boy who falls in love with mermaids would be corny and weird instead of achingly sad and fascinating, well, I don’t blame you…but you’ll have to trust me when I say it’s the latter.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
If you’ve read it, how could you possibly forget the way Plath opens this novel by talking about the summer the Rosenbergs were electrocuted? The Bell Jar is classic anytime, but it’s especially a classic summer novel to me. Plath captures the hot, stinky claustrophobia of a New York summer perfectly, as well as the way summers can feel much quieter but just as dangerous everywhere else. It follows Esther, a gifted writer and intern at a fashion magazine who spins out into a frightening episode of mental illness.
As you may know if you’ve stuck around this blog awhile, I have bipolar disorder, so this book has a particularly special place in my heart: summer’s long days and short nights can be very hard on people with mood disorders. (I literally have to schedule extra mental health appointments in the summer to compensate.) In Plath’s hands, summer isn’t a time for vacation, but rather a sinister and unescapable force, which is how it’s felt in my own life since my bipolar onset in my teens. Even if you don’t have that experience, The Bell Jar is unforgettable and lovely–you won’t regret making the time to read it, if you haven’t already.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Where to begin? This book is flawless. It follows two families, one stubbornly suburban and set in their ways and the other free-floating and untraditional, as they become irreversibly intertwined. There’s an unforgettable contested adoption and court case that had my loyalties switching every other page. There are several coming-of-age stories happening at once, each distinct and achingly beautiful. And it all happens during a heady, sordid summer during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal–a setting Ng makes deft use of to make her characters’ loss of innocence all the more bittersweet and palpable.
Ng does things with words I had previously thought were impossible. She manages to make a quiet literary novel about suburbia feel like a thriller. Little Fires Everywhere feels subtle while you’re reading it, but at the end you realize that your heart has taken quite a beating while your eyes were glued to the page. This book is un-missable. Seriously.
The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory
I’ve packed this post full of heavy-hitting reads, so I wanted to include something lighter and uplifting for those who need it. And even if you don’t think you need it, this one is worth checking out this summer anyway.
The Wedding Date isn’t as heavily summer-themed as others on this list, but 1) it’s set in California, where it’s always kind of like summer (at least in this Minnesotan’s imagination), 2) wedding season and all its fake date potential is totally a summer thing, and 3) it’s the absolute perfect, platonic ideal of a beach read. When Drew invites Alexa to be his fake date for an ex’s wedding, things get more deliciously complicated (and sexy) than either of them could have dreamed. Even if you’re not into romance, I can practically guarantee you’ll love this book. It’s got everything you could want in a book: sweet, sour, salty, umami, and even a touch of bitter. (That analogy made sense in my head, I swear.) It’s an entire reading palate unto itself. Don’t miss it.
What summer classics did I miss? Drop your favorites in the comments below–I’d love to hear them.