My reading of Emma Cline’s ‘The Girls,’ a coming-of-age story complicated by a brutality that breeds in the Californian heat, was somewhat subsumed by my general wish for a scorching hot summer to begin. In true British fashion, I’m always happy to moan about the weather, and I really do feel like unequivocally long hot days have not yet penetrated the impression of a damp, grey spring. Fortunately, I have my books to comfort me. In an attempt to speed summer along, I’ve decided it’s time for a seasonal list of my personal top summer-themed reads.
There are so many Tove Jansson books that would fit the bill here, from ‘Moominsummer Madness’ to ‘The Summer Book,’ but my defining seasonal read will always be the first Moomin story I was ever introduced to. It begins as the Moomins wake up from their winter hibernation, which lasts for ‘a hundred nights and a hundred days.’ The reason it has stuck in my mind is because it gave me one of my most enduring summer rituals. The hero, Moomintroll has much to do in the newly awakened world, but he still takes the time to look out for his first butterfly. ‘As everyone knows, if the first butterfly you see is yellow the summer will be a happy one. If it is white then you will just have a quiet summer. Black and brown butterflies should never be talked about – they are much too sad.’ We know that the book will be a magical adventure when we’re told the colour that Moomintroll spots: ‘It was golden.’ I’ve been trying my luck every spring since, and I still haven’t given up hope!
For a slightly different tone, it’s back to merry (or should that be Merrie?) England for Queen Lucia’s 1920’s summer experience. This is not quite as specifically summery as FFM, and takes us up to Christmas, but for me it’s still defined by the seasonal opening. Also, by the fact that I first discovered the joys of E F Benson as a teenager during family summer holidays. The genteel members of Lucia’s court exist in a picture perfect enclave of period charm. For them, this is because of their kitsch obsession with all things Elizabethan. For us, this is regally assisted by lashings of early twentieth century detail. Whether forming a backdrop to gossiping in the garden or to yoga on the green, in my head the weather in Riseholme is always warm, ideal for outdoor activities and spying on the neighbours. ‘Queen Lucia’ is one of my all time favourite escapist books, and though of course it’s a great read any time, it does seem to go especially well with the warmer months.
As far as I’m concerned, any good cover of Camus ‘The Outsider’ needs to have an image of an inescapable sun somewhere on it. Whether you consider the novella to be an existential fable, a psychological case study, a meditation on colonialism or just a marvellously troubling story there is no denying that the boiling Algerian weather plays a crucial role in the drama. As the shocking central murder plays out, the most violent character is the heat itself. The stagnant, unmoving sun is a dazzling, painful, inescapable partner in crime, the only real link between the two men facing each other on the beach. It may not be a typical cheerful sea-side read, but its cult classic status is undeniably deserved; I’ve found that reading it in hot weather only makes the chilling acceptance of fate, from the discomforting reactions to death to the dream-like responses to the heat, all the more powerful.
A more cheerful summer read is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Like ‘Queen Lucia’ this book makes it on to the list not because it’s set exclusively during the warmer months, but because of the significance of the summer holidays throughout the whole narrative. The book begins during the summer and it’s easy to believe that other times of year (school terms, family Christmas gatherings and so on) are only poor distractions from this main event. Harper Lee never pretends there is equality between the different times of year: “Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colours in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill.” ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is absolutely a book to fall in love with, and its worship of this time of year only makes me long for summer all the more fervently. (True to form, I wrote a more detailed post all about this classic last July, you can read it here).
Kate Atkinson’s second novel, ‘Human Croquet’ shows that dreamlike, endless summers can exist in England too. Isobel Fairfax’s demented coming-of-age story hinges on the increasingly odd events that take place between her birthday (first of April) and a self-consciously Shakespearean midsummer night. Ruined barbecues and atrocious amateur dramatics tragically undercut the pathos of poor Isobel’s troubled adolescence. Of course, I think that Kate Atkinson should be re-read at any time and would hate to restrict any of her books to a specific season. Still, I do find a dull winter evening the perfect time to re-open ‘Emotionally Weird’ or ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ (the latter of which made it onto my list of top Christmas reads back in December). In contrast, ‘Human Croquet’ remains one of Atkinson’s great summer novels, and one that makes a real case for the magic of the season.
I hope it’s not cheating to include ‘A Town Like Alice’ in the list. I know that Alice Springs, and the tiny towns near it, is situated in the middle of the desert so normal seasons may not apply. Still, when I read Shute’s 1950s classic, a sense of the heat and dust of Willstown is compelling enough for me to mentally classify it is a classic summer story. It’s also one of those potentially anti-beach reads of which I’m so fond, a book that’s so full of activity and productivity that reading it makes you feel you need to go out and start up your own industry in the middle of no-where in order to revitalise an entire town’s economy. Of course, that’s if you can’t busy yourself providing hope and succour to a party of refugees and prisoners of war. As a contrast to ‘The Outsider’, Shute argues that soaring temperatures are no excuse for moral laxness or lack of direction. Despite the brutality of some sections, ‘A Town Like Alice’ is a refreshingly wholesome read and I’m delighted to be able to (finally) have an excuse to write about it.
If all that useful activity seems a bit unappealing then you may want to go with the ultimate holiday read, ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ by Françoise Sagan. In this amoral coming-of-age story, the summer is important because it’s a time for love, machinations and lots of lazing in the sun. Oh, and potentially a bit of school work, but only ever as a minor distraction from the main event. This book was a sensation when it came out, with critics up in arms at its presentation of precocious female sexuality. It’s unlikely to be considered so shocking today, but if you fancy a best-seller that relies on its sun-drenched setting to provide context and motivation for its characters, Sagan’s bite-sized debut is the book for you.
Another decadent summer must-read is F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic ‘The Great Gatsby.’ I was very tempted to end the list with my personal favourite Fitzgerald novel, ‘Tender is the Night,’ but I had to concede its opening beach scene (one of my favourite first chapters in literature) was the only bit that I regularly read every summer. ‘Gatsby’ on the other hand is infused with the heat of New York and the lethargic thrill-seeking of the season. It seems to bring everything together, from the romance of the heat to its frightening potential to incite violence. Like every other book on the list, the summer described is placed geographically and philosophically within a wider world of ideas about humanity and the power of nature. Few books however eplore their enduring concerns with such sophisticated style.
I should’t really complain too much. As the list shows, I can easily escape into a summer heat haze whenever I want. As I wait for the weather to catch up with me, there’s loads of enjoyable re-reading to get through, and maybe some new discoveries too; which books are your go-to summer reads and what have I left off the list?