Title and Author: Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle
Publication Date: September 6th, 2016
How I got it: NetGalley. Thanks to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.
What happens when the mythic intersects with the mundane?
Everything changes, of course.
Summerlong takes a modern look at the Persephone and Hades myth. Most people know Peter S. Beagle from his most famous work, The Last Unicorn, but Summerlong is not the same kind of fantasy. It reminds me more of Beagle’s first novel, A Fine & Private Place, where ghosts try to remember the past in the cemetery they’ve been buried in. Both are gentle, character-driven novels, and both make you think.
Summerlong explores the relationship between two characters, Abe and Joanna. Abe is a retired professor working on a book of medieval history and Joanna is a stewardess nearing retirement. They’ve organized their relationship exactly how they want it: dating but not married, a comfortably bickering dialog, and a solid sex-life. But while everything’s as they want it, nothing adventurous ever happens.
Until Lioness arrives, a new waitress at their regular restaurant Sky-liner. Abe coins her ‘primavera’ because she looks like Botticelli’s Primavera, and they’re both immediately enraptured with her. By the end of their dinner, they’ve convinced her to move into Abe’s garage, for she has nowhere to stay and longs to be warm again. Both Joanna and Abe believe she must be hiding from someone.
Neither Abe nor Joanna notice the magic at first, but bit by bit strange things start happening: orcas come to greet Lioness and leave after she speaks to them in her own language, which Abe and Joanna believe is Greek; Abe’s homemade beer turns out perfect for the first time ever; Abe sees the little boy that lives next door pull flowers from beneath the ground to show Lioness. And summer stays on Gardner Island (in the Northwest U.S.), even as the months pass.
No one falls under Lioness’s unintentional spell more than Joanna’s daughter, Lily, a love that Lioness kindly and gently does not return. There are one or two touching scenes between them, but I do wish Lily’s character had been as well developed as Abe’s and Joanna’s, for she’s integral to the climax.
While the magic slowly builds, both Abe and Joanna find talents they were never brave enough to explore. Abe begins playing harmonica for a band, and Joanna learns how to kayak. When Mr. Mardikian, a strange man Joanna has met on the ferry, goes to Sky-liner restaurant with the couple, everything comes to a head. When Lioness sees him, she runs, and Abe runs after her. What happens next alters the relationships so carefully built between all the characters.
There’s a lot to like in Summerlong. Abe and Joanna have a rich and realistic relationship, and I love to see older couples as complex characters instead of stereotypes, and main characters at that. The changes Lioness brings to their lives is gradual and well-developed, and I love the bits of magic that gradually builds. But at key moments Beagle fails to show the magic, which undermines the gradual buildup. I’m not sure why these scenes are missing and only related in retrospect, but I was so disappointed. I wanted to experience what happened with the characters!
Readers who love quiet, mythic fiction, like Patricia McKillips’ Something Rich and Strange and Swim the Moon by Paul Brandon, will enjoy Summerlong. This is not high fantasy, like The Last Unicorn, but mythic fantasy, so if you’re picking it up to experience an entirely different world, you’ll be disappointed. But why not branch out to explore the ways fantasy can be employed in this ordinary world of ours? It’s worth it.