Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'm coming to this book as a "genre" fan, and Beagle really isn't a genre author, not in a traditional way. He's more of a literary author who uses genre elements - even though, unlike some other authors who do the same, he's been warmly embraced by the genre crowd. (I suspect it has more to do with which conferences you go to and which other authors you hang out with than anything in the work itself.)
Accordingly, the structure and the pacing and the way the book develops and resolves, or, in some ways, doesn't resolve, are not what I'm used to as a genre reader, and this made for a sometimes uncomfortable reading experience for me. This, really, is why I've given it four stars instead of five. It's excellently done, speaking objectively; but, speaking subjectively, what it is isn't a thing I completely love, and in part that's because I don't usually read this kind of book. (And, in much larger part, I don't usually read this kind of book because I don't completely love things like this.)
First, the pacing. The best metaphor I can offer is that Beagle builds the picture out of a great many small brushstrokes, and this takes time. It's not a fast-paced book; it's not meant to be. It's a book about the characters and how they change and develop and interact, and it's much more about how they respond to events than how they affect events, and the events themselves are mostly, especially at first, mundane and low-key.
I'm definitely not saying that I was bored. I did feel the slowness of the pace, but recognised what the author was doing and appreciated how well he did it. People who are looking for an action-oriented book will be disappointed, though.
So what about the structure and development and resolution? It isn't tidy. It isn't neat. It doesn't answer all the questions, restore the status quo, defeat the villain (since there really isn't one; even though there's a candidate, it's pretty clearly shown that he's unqualified for the position), or, in most ways, leave the characters better off than when they started. In other ways, though, it does leave them deeper, more open to experience, broader, and fuller than when they started, even if the blessing is extremely mixed.
There's a powerful vein of symbolism running through the story, as you'd expect; it's about the mundane meeting the mythic and being partly (and troublingly, and painfully, and in unexpected ways) transformed, though most of the key changes are not, in themselves, supernatural. Meeting the mythic enables the transformations to take place, but they were always inherent and potential in the characters. They just needed to be unlocked by the right experiences.
Among those experiences, at the hinge point of the book, is a terrible decision by one of the main characters. It's a decision that I thought might be implied by the starting situation; that, as I came to know the characters better, I began to think would not occur; and that I was troubled to see occur, because it seemed like a stereotype, and because it was a really bad idea, and because it's stereotypical because it happens all too often in real life, and because it seemed inadequately motivated given what there was to lose, and because I wished the character (and the other party to the decision) had chosen otherwise. And out of this decision comes messiness and no good resolution, which is where the realism comes in.
What Beagle does so powerfully in all his stories is to show the mythic meeting the realistic - the "realistic" in the form of beautifully rendered stereotypes raised almost to the level of archetypes, like the crotchety retired Jewish professor and the middle-aged Sicilian flight attendant who are central to this book. This is, I think, something literary fiction often does - showing people trapped in their stereotypes and struggling against them in vain - but in Beagle, at least, sometimes they encounter the mythic, enabling them to partially emerge from that struggle and develop in unexpected ways, while still being dragged down by the weight of reality. That's certainly the case here.
I don't know that I would say I liked the book. I certainly didn't love it. But I do admire it as a piece of art.
I received a review copy via Netgalley.
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