As everybody knows (I hope!),I’m responsible for buying all the new hardcover and trade paperback fiction at the Field Library, which is a part of my job I absolutely love. There are some books I pretty much have to buy — the bestsellers, the books by the authors I know our patrons follow, the big books that everybody is likely to be talking about this season — but then there are some books I buy because I really love the author or the series myself and can’t bear to think that our library wouldn’t have a copy of these books.
The most recent book of that sort is Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle. I have been crazy about this man’s writing since I was 12 and bought a paperback copy of his book, The Last Unicorn (and if you’ve never read that book, or you’ve only seen the movie, stop reading this post right now and run out and get your hands on a copy of the book. It’s that wonderful). He’s won all kinds of awards — the Hugo, the Nebula — because his writing is gorgeous, his characters vivid, his takes on traditional fantasy notions unique and beautiful.
Summerlong is his first book in ten years (that’s a long time to wait), and it’s well worth the wait. If you’ve never read his work before, this would be a great place to start (though I still highly recommend The Last Unicorn and also The Folk of the Air, among others).
In a very real place, Gardner Island off the coast of Washington State, there live three very real people: Abe, a retired college professor working on a book about Wat Tyler and the Peasant Rebellion of the 14th century, Joanna, a senior flight attendant taking a regular route between Seattle and Chicago, and Lily, Joanna’s twenty-something lesbian daughter, working at a local radio station. Joanna and Abe have been lovers for more than 20 years, and they’ve worked out a stable relationship, both with each other and with the prickly Lily. They have their routines and their favorite places. One of their favorite places is a particular diner in town, and there one night they see a new waitress, beautiful and mysterious, a young woman named Lioness who looks as if she stepped out of a Renaissance painting.
Lioness comes to live in the garage of Abe’s house, and her odd life begins to intertwine with those of our main characters. She seems to have special powers, the ability to communicate with Orcas and to bring flowers out of the earth out of season, in addition to the nearly hypnotic attraction she exerts on most of the people around her. While she’s staying on Gardner Island, the weather becomes extraordinarily beautiful, as if it’s always spring and early summer, with unheard-of consistency (especially in the Northwest Pacific area), and even when it’s fall on nearby islands, it’s still the most balmy and gorgeous season where she’s living. As long as Lioness is there, the people closest to her start to discover new or buried aspects of their personalities, and their lives begin to change in unexpected ways.
But there’s more to Lioness than the brilliant weather and the warmth of her relations with other people. She’s running away from someone, dropping the rare hint here and there about what she’s afraid of and why she’s running, and that other someone knows where she is and is coming to get her, and ordinary people like Abe and Joanna and Lily will get caught in the maelstrom.
I don’t want to tell more of the plot, not because it’s one of those plots that depends on a surprise twist or two, but because one of the pleasures of this book is discovering what’s really going on as the characters themselves do, through meetings on ferries and get-togethers at barbecues and quiet moments of revelation.
Beagle is a master at creating an atmosphere grounded in reality, with details of cars and driveways and kayaks and diners, where strange and uncanny things can happen believably. Lioness is clearly something other than a normal young woman, and her fear is vivid and understandable even before we know what she’s actually afraid of, but you witness her power and her gentleness and the effect she has on everyone around her. When her true identity is revealed, you’re not really surprised: it feels right, given everything you’ve already learned about her and her world.
Summerlong is haunting and lovely, filled with fascinating characters and delightful prose. Read it and savor the work of a brilliant writer.