Adultery, impotence and death: Welcome to your light summer fare. Photo by Tenaya Hills
Adultery, impotence and death: Welcome to your light summer fare. Photo by Tenaya Hills

Cruel Summer Reading

"Sumer is icumen in," is what the medieval folk song says, and loud (or, well, "lhude") sing the birds of summer in celebration. Yeah, this is the time for June weddings, and all the romances that people pitifully hope will come from going to June weddings, and picnics in the park with pretentious bottles of pinot, and smiling walks on the beach at sunset gazing at the wine-dark sea, and all that crap. There's a long tradition of poems and stories that say summer means romance (e.g., Midsummer Night's Dream), and there is even great Professor Northrop Frye, who a half-century ago basically said that the imaginative literature of romance and chivalry and adventure that ends happily all emerges more or less organically out of that hopeful, warm feeling we're all supposed to get when the solstice arrives.

But, come on, "it's a cruel, cruel summer," quoth Bananarama, and you know it, and if you don't, here's proof: five modern novels, four of them certifiable classics, that demonstrate that where summer's concerned, misery is what's icumen in:

Kate Chopin'sThe Awakening
In which dreamy, languorous Edna Pontellier, summering at Grand Isle, off the coast of New Orleans, gets in touch with sweet childhood memories where she walked through fields of gold, learns how to swim, flirts with a handsome young suitor, takes up painting, has a torrid affair with a dashing cad, then realizes—whoops! I'm married, and whoops, I've got kids!—and drowns herself.

Ernest Hemingway'sThe Sun Also Rises
In which Jake Barnes, who gave up "more than his life" in the war (poor dude's impotent), lives it up expatriately in Paris, which for him means staying sloshed on Pernod because he's in love with ravenously sexual Brett Ashley ("She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht," which, incidentally, is a simile that launched a thousand bad novels by Hemingway wannabes) and can do little about it but listen to Brett tell him how miserable she is sleeping with guys she doesn't care about, and then pimp for her when she falls for a studly Spanish matador named Pedro. Some cool fishing scenes, though.

F. Scott Fitzgerald'sThe Great Gatsby
In which Jay Gatsby, who spent the last five years of his life (illegally) making the millions of dollars he thinks is necessary to get the girl of his dreams back, moves into a mansion across the bay from Daisy Buchanan (who's married now with a kid), then commences to try to steal her away from her husband, who is smarter and crueler than Gatsby is, and makes sure that Gatsby ends up floating dead in his pool, which is particularly miserable, since Gatsby never really loved Daisy anyway: he was, as everybody knows, in love with the Green Light.

Philip Roth'sGoodbye, Columbus
A story that feels like a sweet summer romance, with poor boy Neil Klugman wooing cool rich girl Brenda Patimkin, kissing her breasts in the country club pool, making out at the movies, having sex in her Daddy's basement, and whipping "our strangeness and newness into a froth that resembled love"—only Brenda turns out to be using him as a summer plaything and dumps him when it's time to go back to Radcliffe. Neil learns something, but it ain't that he's going to fall for a girl like that ever again.

Finally, Rex Pickett'sSideways
Yes, this is the novel on which the film that fucked with the profit margins of merlot vintners everywhere was based, and recommended here not because it's any good—it's basically "summer beach fare," which means fast and funny, with lots of sun, wine and sex—but because it's a great example of the florid, showoffy way Hollywood screenwriters (which is what Pickett is) write when they condescend to write a novel, and it allows you to be astonished at the graceful way Alexander Payne adapted the screenplay and directed the film. Sometimes the film's much better than the book. Happy (miserable) reading.


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