“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?
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*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.