I finished Summerlong by Dean Bakopoulos during a heat wave, which is appropriate because each chapter of this dark Midwestern comedy starts with an announcement about the scorching temperature. I read this book in a sweaty and uncomfortable state, with my feet in a kiddie pool.
I chose this book because of its summery cover. I have been looking for a good “summer read,” and all signs pointed to this one (Beach chair by a pool! “Summer” in title!). I liked this book quite a bit and was very entertained, but it wasn’t a quintessential summer read for me – mostly because the all the characters were unsettled or unhappy. That fact made me wonder if my own definition of a good “summer read” involves a happiness payoff, a literary frozen treat at the end, perhaps.
Summerlong is a story about midlife ennui. The central characters are part of a married couple living in a college town in Iowa. Claire wrote a book years ago but has since bumped along as a stay-at-home-mom. Don is a struggling realtor who keeps secret how unsuccessful he is. When the book starts, Don wakes up in a drug-induced state with a beautiful but grieving younger woman. At the same time, Claire spends the evening skinny dipping with a younger man. The novel follows these characters as they try to escape the chains of their own lives.
There is something theatrical about this book. I could almost see it playing out on stage. The ennui is realistic, but the ways in which the characters come together and interact are farcical. There are, however, quite a few nude academics (gah!) in the story, so it might translate into the kind of play that embarrasses everyone.
This book made me think about midlife crises in literature. I did a quick google search and found that there are plenty of lists with titles like, “Popular Midlife Crisis Books!” All of them have exclamation points on them, which strikes me as funny punctuation for a state of mind that is defined by a feeling of immobility and lack of purpose. Most of the books on the lists seem to involve flabby white men coming to terms with their bad decisions. Is there a list that includes diverse midlife crisis experiences? Perhaps that will be a reading challenge for 2016.
In the meantime, this article from The Atlantic suggests that things do indeed get better when midlife passes. Claire and Don should put their clothes back on and hang in there.