“Know that you will never fall asleep on a beach again.” That’s what I tell would-be mothers when they ask what to expect of motherhood (because the books don’t tell you the half of it). Oh, of course I tell them the good stuff, too: an enlarged heart and sense of purpose and connection with a tiny body-and-soul that needs you like water, like everything.

And grief. To mother is to grieve–even if not actively–to know that one day this little being’s light will be extinguished. And we hope and pray that it happens after our own light is long gone, but we know that it will happen. Motherhood is carrying that knowledge around with us everywhere, while stoking our kids’ lights to make them brighter. To make them last.

In the coming-of-age novel, The Remnants of Summer, debut novelist Dawn Newton plumbs the depths of grief after our 14-year-old protagonist, Iris, falls asleep on the beach while babysitting not her child but her younger brother–who drowns.

“Iris is sinking.” So begins the novel’s summary, and Newton expertly weaves water into grief and redemption throughout this coming-of-age story set in a lakeside, working-class community in the 70s. It is grief-laden, this novel, but it’s also a balm–not only because the author taps into the nostalgia of youth, but because the author taps into the resilience of youth.

My best childhood days were spent at the lake. What better reward for lake-effect snow from December through March (and sometimes April) than summer at the water’s edge? The Remnants of Summer is set not far from Detroit, Michigan, but you’ll find your lakeside town in this story, I promise. You’ll remember the bike rides and trips for ice cream, the fishing and daydreaming. You’ll be reminded of the way the sun turns the rippling lake to sparkles.

Of course there’s a flip side to the idyllic lakeside story. The lake has taken Iris’s little brother the summer before, on Iris’s watch, and now the lake doesn’t shimmer like it always did. Her relationship with this place, her home, has changed; what’s more her relationships with her parents and older sister, Liz, have changed, too. Why won’t they blame her outright for her brother’s death, already? Instead Iris blames herself, over and over, and tries to keep afloat as she works a summer job and gets together with friends–but grief puts a shadow over everything.

Meanwhile, a serial killer has nabbed and killed several children in Michigan. This development is less a plot point than atmosphere–but true-to-history-atmosphere–and not germane to the story, except that it allows for Iris to ruminate on death and guilt outside her family situation. Likewise, she considers those soldiers missing and presumed dead–a neighbor’s cousin is MIA–in the ongoing war in Vietnam. These historical points set the scene, but I admit to wondering if this quiet coming-of-age novel was about to turn into a mystery. And I admit to thinking that a plot thread along those lines, woven through the family saga, might have been a good way to raise the stakes even higher.

When a neighbor’s uncle, a man about twice her age, makes a sexual pass, Iris considers new feelings, and new questions come burbling up: Did she want the attention? To feel special? Was she attracted or scared of him, or both? I was glad for these coming-of-age questions to round out Iris’s character and rescue her from her sinking grief.

I was also glad for the ending, which doesn’t wrap things up too neatly. Anyone who has experienced grief for a lost loved one knows there’s no wrapping it up. Grief ebbs and flows, and you ride it as best you can.

I won’t soon forget Iris. And I won’t soon forget the gorgeous prose the author uses to make this summertime story feel like it was mine for a time–language, characterization, and setting the novel’s strongest elements. One of my favorite passages, describing a summer concert on the water:

“…she told Iris she and her husband lingered around the edges of the circle the boats made in the water, listening for the faint strain of the pitch pipe, then the blend of the rich voices, from bass and baritone to soprano, voices mingling with those of complete strangers from the other side of the lake, in search of the harmony that hung in the air, waiting to be sung.”

How do you define “beach read” and what’s your favorite one? Got a favorite lake? Who writes your favorite settings the best? What are you reading, this week?

Looking for more Rust Belt book reviews, author interviews, and more? Check out my categories above, and find me on my FB page and over at Twitter as @MoonRuark

*Thanks to the folks at Mindbuck Media Book Publicity for sending me a copy of the novel for review! Pre-orders are available now, if you’re interested.

22 thoughts on “A Different Kind of Beach Read: A Review of Dawn Newton’s THE REMNANTS OF SUMMER

  1. Great review. I think of a “beach read” as something light: comedic, “Devil Wears Prada” top elf thing, or a straightup thriller like “Gone Girl.” Btu, as your terrific review points out, we should consider ALL great fiction, because it takes us away to new places, offers new experiences, or touches new emotions, and what better way to spend a day at the beach?

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    1. Yes, I usually think of “beach reads” as definite page-turners, but I also think it’s fun to read books set in winter, during winter, summer during summer…and at the beach when I’m at the beach (though usually, honestly, it’s magazines at the beach, because…sand). I do love an escape read, and I think I’m partial to historicals because they take me far away! Oh, and as for “The Devil Wears Prada,” I never read that book, but loved the movie, so I guess I should! Now, how about a pool read for the Godfather house pool!? That would have to be one exciting read to compete with the surroundings!

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  2. Wow, this sounds like a great novel, Rebecca — thanks for writing about it & bringing it to the attention of your readers. I’m currently in Michigan (where Covid is spiking). I always like to read books about this state, so I shall be looking for it in the bookstore in Traverse City or elsewhere. Hope you’re doing well. Say, this week (I can’t remember the date now), Dorthe Nors & J. Robert Lennon will be doing a (I presume) free chat online via Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor (I really love that store!). I plan to watch; maybe you’d be interested, too. Don’t know if I told you my husband got Covid, but he’s just about back to himself (still a bit of a cough, though). I got the J&J one-shot & am keeping my fingers crossed it works Up North! Have a great day! Yours in writing, Deb

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    1. I felt like I was there, in the novel, and I love a good coming-of-age story! It’s a quiet one, but well done. I could feel the burn in my legs, climbing the sand dunes! (Isn’t it crazy how we used to tromp all over sand dunes?)

      Glad you got your “jab” (I’d like the one-and-done, too!) and that your husband is on the mend. My dad was able to visit from Ohio after he got his vaccine shots–for Easter. Nice to get a hug after almost a year!

      Ah, and I just found the Dorthe Nors/J. Robert Lennon (I don’t know him) event–the evening of the 15th. This is a good reminder for me to get her book (I’ve been buying so many books during the pandemic; nothing to get dressed up for…so clothes budget becomes book budget!) Unfortunately, I might be on kids’ sports duty that night, but I’ll see. She was so fun in that class!

      Take care and be safe, Deb…and happy reading and writing. Looking forward to whatever you’ve got in the works!

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      1. I apologize for responding so late, Rebecca. My darn WordPress platform (or whatever it’s called)—I don’t see that I have comments! LOL Glad you and your family could see/hug your dad again for Easter! I did “attend” the Nors/Lennon reading/talk and it was great. I’m sort of tired of Zoom events, but this one was good. Glad to hear you’re reading and writing! I’m doing some writing in MI (it’s still kind of cold, so I’m happy to stay inside). Wishing you a great week! Deb

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      2. Oh, no apologies, Deb. WordPress is goofy sometimes! I wish I’d made the Nors/Lennon talk, but I was running my guys to sports practices. I’m glad you enjoyed the talk. I found Nors so personable and funny. I am loving her WILD SWIMS right now–so inventive and different from anything else I’ve read lately. I’m glad you’re getting writing done–and I look forward to reading what comes next from you! I bet MI is lovely, even if it’s still cold. I’m waiting until June to head to OH, but my blood has thinned from too much time spent below the Mason Dixon!

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  3. Sounds like a way to reminisce about my younger years, but with a bit of an edge to it. I don’t read on the beach! 😁 This week I’m reading The Chester Creek Murders by Nathan Dylan Goodwin. He writes genealogical mysteries and is an excellent writer. My non-fiction reads are Feather by Thor Hanson and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

    Enjoyed your review! And also your perspective on preemptively grieving the death of a child. Being childless, I can’t know exactly what it’s like, but I can expect to outlive my current dog and maybe future ones. Having been through that pain, I can anticipate it with sorrow.

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    1. Your genealogical mysteries sound fun. And I’ve heard such good things about Braiding Sweetgrass! The TBR just grows and grows!

      Preemptive grieving–I’m a downer, aren’t I? It’s a terrible thing to anticipate, but maybe that knowledge makes the joys more joyful? And, yes, I do think pets rank up there with our most cherished family members. At Easter, my family is always reminded of my mom’s cat, gone now, who knocked every one of my mom’s blown, hand-painted eggs onto the floor to break, this night before Easter. It was heartbreaking, but she still loved that cat!

      Hope you’re staying safe and healthy. Enjoy your reads!

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  4. Your favorite passage fits your singing (choir) heart well! I haven’t read the book, but I’ll add it to my list. That list just keeps growing. I love your words about motherhood. And the thoughts about grief, it does flow as you described. I’m heading to the beach with a traded book my mother-in-law shared and read – The Return. I haven’t read a Nicholas Sparks book in years, I suspect it’ll be an easy read, familiar, and hopefully will take my mind off of life for a while. I look forward to your next book review! I hope all is well with you and your family and that the boys have continued to thrive and grow!! xx

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    1. Yes! That passage in the book describes a barbershop quartet sing-along all over a lake–I thought the conceit and the language were so nice. And babershop quartets seem so quaint now, but I remember summer concerts in our town square gazebo always featured one!

      How wonderful to share books with loved ones. I do hope that it will provide a good escape–sometimes the best medicine, I think!

      We’re all hanging in, had a nice Easter, and are now in full-on spring mode–with spring sports, and spring fever, meaning the boys are so ready for summer vacation already!

      Virtual hugs, my friend. Stay well and warm. (Hope your snow melts quick!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Aw, your comments made the book even more intriguing. I must see if I can find a copy of it when I return from my trip.
        Glad to hear you had a nice Easter. And that the boys are geared up for spring and summer!!
        Hugs to you too! xoxo

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