With the unseasonably warm, no, make that brutally hot weather we've had in the Northeast these last few days, I've been rereading what's probably the quintessential beach read as far as I'm concerned: Summer People, by Marge Piercy (1989). OK, truth be told, I was rereading it even before this weekend's spate of August in April set in; once it did, I did a lot more sleeping than reading. (I Do. Not. Like. hot weather. I live in upstate NY for a reason, people.)
I love this book. I picked my copy up at a used book sale years ago, after the story stayed with me long after I'd returned my borrowed copy to the library and I realized it was one I needed to own. This edition wasn't well-made to begin with, the kind of thing you'd pick up in the airport or supermarket as you're heading outta Dodge for a vacation. By now, the front cover hangs on by a single masking tape-sized corner, and the pages have faded to an indeterminate shade of yellowbrowngrey. In short, it's been around the block a few times, and I still pick it up to reread when I'm sick, stressed, or otherwise not firing on all cylinders. It's a grrlbook, sure, but it's a darned good one.
Summer People follows three year-round residents of a small Cape Cod town for the year surrounding the breakup of their long-lived menage a trois. Dinah is a composer and musician who guards her independence fiercely, but still longs deeply for intimacy. For years, she's found it with her neighbors: Willie, a gentle, idealistic sculptor, and his wife Susan, an ethereal, fragile fabric designer. As the novel opens, though, tensions are beginning to flicker, fueled by the principals' conflicting relationships to the town's wealthy summer residents. Susan's long been captivated by the glamour and sophistication of the summer people -- particularly Tyrone Burdock, the unctuous and manipulative wheeler-dealer whose summer estate adjoins their own. Dinah has little patience for Tyrone's arrogance and intrusiveness, and rarely misses a chance to make this known; Willie thinks Tyrone's a nuisance, but mostly holds his tongue for the sake of keeping the peace (a frequent habit of his, we soon learn). When Susan ventures out in a snowstorm to check on Tyrone's empty house, and narrowly escapes serious injury, Dinah scolds her furiously. The ensuing argument leads Susan to sever not just her own relationship with Dinah, but Willie's as well.
It's only as the triangle falls apart that its members (and the reader) fully grasp its significance: how it's sustained and strengthened all three of them, but also how it's limited them. Without the emotional connection to Dinah, Susan becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her work and life on the Cape, and ever more convinced that her friendship with Tyrone is her ticket to the fast-paced, fashionable big city lifestyle she craves. Willie finds himself at loose ends professionally and personally, so embroiled in a construction project for Tyrone that his own work suffers, and unable to either give up his relationship with Dinah or to admit this to Susan. And Dinah is torn between trying to recapture what she shared with Willie and Susan, and recognizing those needs the triangle hadn't filled: for spiritual roots, shared passion for music, and just maybe a different sort of love and creativity.
Piercy employs the same technique she's used in other novels (including Gone to Soldiers and The Longings of Women), telling the story from four different characters' perspectives. The fourth is Tyrone's daughter Laurie, a timid aspiring artist who, after her husband dies of a drug overdoes, flees NYC for the safety and healing of the Cape. Susan and Willie's son Jimmy is in the same boat, home from Seattle to lick his wounds after the collapse of both his business and his marriage. Not surprisingly, Jimmy and Laurie are drawn to each other's familiarity and vulnerability, and become involved ... much to Susan's and Tyrone's chagrin. We also get to know Itzak, the acclaimed flutist who Dinah meets when she's commissioned to compose a piece for him, and who proves to be a kindred spirit; and Susan and Willie's daughter Johnny (nee Siobhan), a Minneapolis-based punk artist who never fails to push Susan's buttons.
As is true of most of Piercy's books, the plot is solid enough, but it's the characters who really shine. With the exception of Tyrone, they're all intriguingly multi-faceted, with much more going on beneath the surface than we see at first glance. The changes they undergo over the course of the novel are mostly believable, though I do wish Jimmy's and Laurie's motivations were fleshed out a bit more, and I'd like to have seen Susan portrayed in a slightly more sympathetic light.
I also enjoy some of the vignettes Piercy offers to give the story its texture. My favorite scene is probably one in which Dinah, free to celebrate Passover for the first time in a decade, decides to host a seder, cobbing together a guest list that includes Jimmy, Laurie, Itzak, a rabble-rousing 60-something steelworker's widow, a gay neighbor and his partner, and a bland "summer people" couple and their pre-teen daughter. The results are sweet, funny, and pitch-perfect; anyone who's celebrated holidays with a motley, patchwork guest list won't know whether to laugh or cry.
Matter of fact, that's probably why I enjoy Piercy's books so much. Her characters are flawed, and she pokes fun at them sometimes, but it's neither mean-spirited nor melodramatic. I find myself sorry when I finish the story, as if my old friends are moving away. Fortunately, the bookshelf in my living room isn't all that far.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.