1972. 170 pages. Softcover. New York Review Books [NYRB].
Trans. by Thomas Teal
From: The public library
For: Spotlight Series
In a nutshell:
The Summer Book immerses the reader in the summer meanderings, conversations, and revelations discovered by Grandmother and her granddaughter Sophia. Along with Papa, Sophia’s father, the three spend their summers as the only human residents on a small island in the Gulf of Finland.
The title of The Summer Book is indicative of the reading experience it provides. It is a simple title, but promises a distillation of that tantalizing season, of those summers that seem both forever and fleeting.
The back cover description states that The Summer Book occurs over the course of one summer, when Sophia is six. However, the actual story does not insist on these details. Actually, I could not recall where in the story either of those two facts were stated. Sophia often came across as older than six at times, and I struggled with that at first, but because the book wasn’t that concerned with reiterating her age, my concern faded away too.
Similarly, the book encourages a feeling of timelessness. Indeed, one of the last chapters starts with “One summer, Sophia was suddenly afraid of small animals” as if it could be the same summer or another one, and does it really matter anyway? Because each of the twenty-two chapters are actually self-contained “vignettes” (the apt term used on the back cover), sequential plot is hardly the point.
Not that I think the vignettes should ever be taken on their own. I couldn’t tell you exactly why each part is absolutely necessary to the whole, just that they all belong together exactly the way they are. I do have some favorite chapters though. I loved the one where Grandmother and Sophia become enraptured by Venice; they recreate its canals and sinking palaces in the island marsh. There is also “The Cat,” when Sophia gets frustrated that her cat always remains aloof. In another, “Day of Danger”, Sophia learns about and quickly adopts superstitions, causing a great anxiety that Grandmother must somehow dispel. These seem like small things, but there is so much contained in these small things.
Many of the stories involve an incident where Sophia is stirred to some great emotion and Grandmother handles it with wisdom. However, this wisdom does not come across as omniscient, predictable or dull. The writing itself is too wise for that. Grandmother is not an archetype, but an individual. While Sophia is figuring out the world for the first time, Grandmother is figuring out old age. They accomplish this task alone and together. The book often finds the two collaboratively spinning out stories to explain an object or a person, sometimes rejecting the other’s contributions, sometimes accepting and embellishing upon them.
There is a theme of mortality running throughout The Summer Book. Early on, the book indicates that Sophia’s mother died recently. Her mother’s death is mentioned only once explicitly, but whenever the story brushes with death, it is deepened by the knowledge of the family’s loss. I learned from Kathryn Davis’ introduction that Tove Jansson wrote The Summer Book shortly after the death of her own mother.
There is much more I could write on this book, such as its keen sense of place. It is a book that I know deserves to be re-read. I read The Summer Book as part of the Spotlight Press Series NYRB tour. Check out the other stops here. I had read only one NYRB book before and that was The Dud Avocado earlier this year, which I have already labeled a favorite. Now having loved The Summer Book as well, I will be definitely checking out more books from this press.
Edited to add: NYRB decided to give Spotlight Series participants a few gift items, including a book, after the tour was over. As noted above, The Summer Book came from the public library. I had heard that there was going to be a gift before I posted this review, but it didn’t affect my opinion of the book. The Summer Book attracted my praise completely on its own merits.