We don’t usually hear “Ashbery” and “beach read” in the same utterance, so how delightful to see this review of Deborah Shapiro’s second novel, “The Summer Demands” (Catapult), which takes its title from “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (from the final two lines of “As Someone Put Drunk Into the Packet-Boat: The summer demands and takes away too much. / But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes). The Chicago Tribune describes it as a “thinking woman’s beach read,” and apparently that might mean a woman sitting on a beach reading Ashbery…
June 4, 2019
'The Summer Demands': Oak Park's Deborah Shapiro pens a thinking woman's beach read
By Kathleen Rooney
The label “beach read” generally connotes a throw-away novel suitable for consumption on vacation: engaging, but not too heavy; nothing that might spoil a person’s holiday vibe. Of course, different people have different preferences in what they like to read at the beach, and Deborah Shapiro’s smart, funny, nuanced and seductive second novel, “The Summer Demands,” just might be this season’s sophisticated option for people who prefer their water-side reading gently sad and cinematically nostalgic.
Every bit as packed with atmospheric wit as one might expect of a book that draws its title from a John Ashbery poem, Shapiro’s story unfolds at an abandoned summer camp along the south shore of Massachusetts, with all that setting’s inherent promise of escape and romance — its ineffable “haze of desire and memory.”
Emily, the first-person narrator, and her husband, David, have inherited this camp — where she “had been a young camper … almost thirty years ago” — from her great-aunt Esther. They originally had ambitions to turn the property into a getaway resort for the “certain demographic” to which they belong: “old enough to know that a swath of popular culture no longer speaks to them, but not so old as to stop identifying as ‘youngish’; city-oriented and with some spare time and income to spend.”
But that plan failed, and now the couple is living in the Director’s House, David going to work in Boston and Emily drifting listlessly around the dreamy, dilapidated landscape, “green and still and slightly grainy. The way it is in foreign films form the 1970s and ’80s.” Directionless and isolated, she is in deep mourning over a recent miscarriage, one that likely means that she’ll never become a mother. Vaguely creative but jobless and 39, she admits, “I’m not exactly sure what it is that I do.”
Or rather, she hadn’t been sure, but when Emily stumbles upon Stella, “playing jacks” in one of the camp’s more secluded structures, her primary pursuit becomes this 22-year-old stranger who’s been squatting there, also attempting to figure out what to do with her own life. Emily finds herself filled with a “weird energy” merely contemplating this mysterious young woman before she even knows her name, keeping her discovery a secret from her husband for almost a week. “Mostly,” Emily thinks, “because she wasn’t putting me in the position of being the uptight, incurious person telling her to leave, I wanted her to stay.”
Stay Stella does, and as the story unfolds over the sultry duration of the season, both David and Emily find themselves closely connecting to this forthright and beautiful young woman of whom Emily thinks, “If she wasn’t worldly, it was only because she hadn’t yet had the opportunity; she already had the outlook.”
Oak Park resident Shapiro’s previous novel, 2016’s “The Sun In Your Eyes,” chronicled the enchantments and disenchantments of intense female friendship, and “The Summer Demands” feels like a logical extension of similarly intricate themes of intimacy and vulnerability.
Here, unlike in that novel, the two main female characters do become — or come quite close to being — romantically involved, with Emily worrying what kind of betrayal, exactly, she might be committing. Whatever it is, it’s enough to cause Emily to feel envious of Stella’s erstwhile girlfriend, Alice — to think absurdly and regretfully of herself and David sitting around a campfire during one of her visits to Stella as “these two middle-aged strangers hogging her marshmallows and weed.”
Happily, material that could become lurid and cruel — one of Emily’s old college friends alludes to the “manipulative libertines” of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” —or even glib and cliché comes across, thanks to Shapiro’s skill, as complicated and affecting, compassionate and humane. “It’s not that she became the object of my desire,” thinks Emily of Stella. “Not exactly. More like she reminded me that longing could sometimes, for an instant, here and there, be met.”
A gorgeously written story of late youth and early middle age, the novel makes the delicate argument that maybe a person can come of age at any age — that maybe everyone is always coming of age all the time.
Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” and “The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte.”
‘The Summer Demands’
By Deborah Shapiro, Catapult, 224 pages, $25