The Book of Summers (2012) by Emylia Hall
I am giving this a generous review, because I'm in a generous mood, and the weather has been beautiful lately (although I say this as the temperature has dropped 10 degrees and it's started raining), and this book - as the title would suggest - is perfect for long, hot, sunny days.
Beth (short for Erzsébet) is an ordinary single woman of about 30, living in London with a scatty flatmate and a nice job in an art gallery. Her life seems fairly uneventful, but we know from the beginning that she has long-buried secrets, exemplified by an awkward meeting with her father. He visits Beth because she has been sent a package he thinks is important: it turns out to be a scrapbook compiled by her estranged mother, Marika, and brings with it the news that Marika has passed away. This revelation, combined with the collection of old photos contained within the scrapbook, prompt Beth to look back on the summers she spent with her mother in Hungary between the ages of ten and sixteen.
I started this thinking it was either going to be an absolutely brilliant read and a book I'd fall in love with, or that it would turn out to be mushy chick-lit rubbish and I'd hate it. In fact, I was wrong on both counts. I didn't find The Book of Summers as enthralling as I hoped I might, but it's certainly not sentimental trash. It's a detailed exploration of childhood, nostalgia and family, focusing mainly on Beth's relationship with her passionate, unpredictable mother: there's also Beth's first romance with Tamás, the 'boy next door' in Hungary. The mystery of the story lies in why Beth stopped visiting Hungary, and why she has not spoken to Marika since the summer she was sixteen. I had no idea whatsoever what the twist was going to be, and the gradually building tension throughout the chapters made my interest in finding out increase dramatically as the book's climax neared. I have to say I was a bit disappointed by what the big secret actually was after all that anticipation, although the author did an excellent job of avoiding any spoilers or clues in the rest of the narrative.
The language is enormously evocative - in particular, the contrast between romantic Hungary and (to the young Beth) dreary England is portrayed very effectively - but it's also excessively florid. It took me quite a while to get used to this, especially as Beth is extremely fond of fleshing out the details of unknown situations in her own imagination, and adding descriptive flourishes that really aren't needed. Certain portions of the dialogue are so inauthentic as to be cringeworthy - I'm thinking particularly of the recalled conversation between Beth and Justin, which stood out like a sore thumb for me even though it's a very short exchange. And the book ended exactly as I knew it would from the start... I won't spoil it for anyone, but the epilogue is very clichéd, though not as bad as it might have been.
The Book of Summers is a charming first novel, rich with atmosphere and nostalgic detail. My advice, though, is to read this in a park on a sunny day, or by the pool on holiday... I just don't think its dreamy, hazy recreation of childhood summer days would have captivated me quite so much without the real-life backdrop to match. A book of summers, then, but also a book for summer.