Tuesday, June 07, 2022

Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle

I'm never sure how much of a story I'm expected to figure out on my own as a "normal reader." I haven't been reading normally since I became an editor, thirty years ago - and maybe even earlier than that, since I have an English degree.

What I mean is: I pick apart stories while experiencing them. I don't think most people do. So if something is blindingly obvious to me, I often wonder if it's supposed to be - if the author meant it that way - and if it's obvious to most readers, because I usually think it isn't.

There's something like that in Summerlong, Peter S. Beagle's short novel from 2016. There's a fantasy element here - and I know every reader will be expecting some fantasy element from Beagle - that is based on what I think are pretty clear cultural references, and I figured it out fifty pages or more before the characters in the book did. (And this is in a book that's only 236 pages to begin with.)

So: is the reader supposed to figure out what's going on before the characters do? I think there's a good chance Beagle does mean it that way: he drops a few hints, and it's something I'd think of as general cultural knowledge - not on the zombies-and-werewolves level, but not too far below that.

That question changes how the reader thinks of the characters, of course: it always does. 

Summerlong is the story of one summer, one long-time couple, and a woman who comes unexpectedly into their lives. No: not the way you're thinking. Well, not exactly. It's complicated.

Abe Aronson is a sixtyish mostly retired academic who lives in a small, declining house on Gardner Island, out in the Puget Sound outside Seattle. Joanna Delvecchio is a fifty-something air hostess, based in Seattle and just a few years out from retirement. They've had a relationship for about twenty years - never married, never actually living together, but mostly together and durably so. Joanna also has a twenty-something daughter, Lily, who lives in Seattle and has a dramatically complicated love-life with other women.

One night, Abe and Joanna go out to dinner at their local place on Gardner, the Skyliner. There's a new waitress there - compelling in an oddly exotic way, with a face out of a Renaissance painting. Her name is Lioness Lazos; she's new in town; she's been sleeping in the back of the restaurant.

Abe has a garage that's only being used for storage, so he offers it to Lioness as a place to live. Joanna is entirely in favor of this. (As is Lily, a couple of days later, when she meets Lioness.)

Lioness does move in. She's friendly, but mostly keeps to herself. She clearly has secrets; everyone assumes she's running from something, and on Gardner as a good place to hide away for a while. And everyone is just fine with that, as a blustery winter ends and spring rolls into an early, long, and glorious summer.

All three are fascinated with Lioness in their own quiet ways. Abe and Joanna start up new pastimes - hobbies is too small a word. Abe's blues harmonica playing, which used to be a way to waste time while thinking about the book he was trying to write, brings him into a band. Joanna starts learning how to kayak, and making plans to go all around the Sound.

Summerlong is, not to be too reductive about it, the story of that year, that long summer. About how the presence of Lioness changes the people around her, and what happened at the end. And, yes, there is a fantasy element. I've given some hints here: some of you might have guesses as to that element, and you might well be right.

This is a smaller Beagle work: I wouldn't say minor or lesser, but definitely small. It's about a small group of people in a specific place, mostly about how they interact with each other. Beagle's books are always more about people than larger things, but this one feels more specific and particular than most.

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