Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle
|Author:||Peter S. Beagle|
|Genre(s):||Fantasy / Magical Realism|
|Release Date:||September 13, 2016 (US) September 29, 2016 (UK)|
Like a warm summer afternoon, Peter S. Beagle’s upcoming novel, Summerlong, is charmingly quiet yet deeply thoughtful, with an ambiance that will keep readers spellbound to the final page.
Beagle’s first full-length novel since Tamsin published in 1999, Summerlong features an older couple, Abe and Joanna, who initially seem content with their lives. The pair is unmarried, but has spent more than two decades together, and has settled into a comfortable routine, with the laid-back Abe writing a book about some obscure piece of ancient history, and Joanna working as an often frazzled flight attendant who is unsure she can relate anymore to the new generation of flight staff.
Joanna’s daughter, Lily, is a young adult who seems to be the source of any previous drama in Abe and Joanna’s relationship, as Joanna must sometimes come to the aid of her heartbroken daughter when her relationships inevitably come to a stormy conclusion.
The lives of Abe, Joanna and Lily are changed when Abe and Joanna visit their favorite restaurant and meet the new waitress, Lioness, who immediately captivates everyone she meets with her beauty, grace and effortless charm. Abe and Joanna invite Lioness to live in their garage, and slowly, interspersed between scenes of their everyday lives, the pair comes to realize that Lioness’s quirks possess their own magic, and she may be far more than a simple small-town waitress.
Beagle, of course, is best-known for The Last Unicorn, his 1968 publication widely considered one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written. For readers who loved The Last Unicorn, Summerlong is a very different story, even as it proves that Beagle remains just as talented at turning a phrase and telling a story.
Summerlong relies upon Beagle’s literary mastery for its success. The setting on a small island outside of Seattle becomes an extra protagonist to the story as our characters conduct their day-to-day lives. From the fish markets of Seattle to the quiet peace of island life, Beagle paints a vivid picture of the community in which these characters live, and sets the foundation for the changes he will visit upon them.
While Lioness’s arrival serves as a turning point for the characters, she herself isn’t especially fleshed out or compelling – even the revelation of her true identity isn’t surprising to anyone familiar with the most familiar Greek myths. She’s pretty and magical, but Beagle never spends much time examining her motivations or her complexities – that’s not the purpose of the novel, or her character. Instead, she serves as a McGuffin for the changes Abe and Joanna make in their lives.
As we get to know the two better, it becomes clear that while they aren’t necessarily unhappy with their lives, each is itching for a change. After some cajoling, Abe begins to spend less time conducting research for his book and spends more time playing for a local blues band on his harmonica. Joanna, though she doesn’t know how to swim, grows more and more captivated by the idea of kayaking. Even as these changes seem to make each character happier, they remain flawed, and over the course of the novel their choices begin to pull their comfortable camaraderie apart.
Beagle, of course, draws these characters carefully, slowly unraveling the ways in which they are changing with lyrical, eloquent verbiage, making the mundane somehow magical:
They faced each other silently over the plastic bags, which in the freezing starlight seemed to Lily to be transforming themselves into great, slow, cheese-green waves, poised to crush and drown her if she looked at them too directly. She said at last, quietly, “I do wish to say farewell.”
It’s Beagle’s exceptional writing skill that makes Summerlong worth reading, if for no other reason than to immerse yourself in his prose, his characters, and his world. It’s a strange novel, blending the monotony of day-to-day living with the world of myths and legends, and even in the spots where it is uplifting, you can’t help but catch a hint of sadness and melancholy, as the choices that allow the characters to find new joys or ease their pain bring entirely new problems. In the end, it’s hard to say whether Abe and Joanna’s chance meeting with a character from Greek myth served them well or ill. I’m certain different readers will come to different conclusions, and for a well-written, thoughtful story such as this, that’s half the fun.