A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Tragedy came one summer’s night: a teenage party, emotions running high, followed by a horrific car crash. A girl is left dead and a boy is forced to leave his home town, bearing a secret that he will carry forever. Years later, Summer grows up believing that our genes define who we are. Her teenage years are marked by absence: her beautiful, aloof mother abandons the family without a trace and her father descends into mental illness, haunted by a lifelong burning secret. A compelling story about how what happens to you as a child never leaves you, how the fallibility of your parents can make you stronger, and how being right isn’t as important as being wise.
This book has a totally fabulous cover, but with all that glitter it did give me a false sense of happiness and I was rather blown away by the amount of angst in this novel. And, oh boy, but is there a lot of angst. Well-written angst, yes, but angst nonetheless. I thought if I said the “a” word often enough in my first few sentences, then you might get the picture here … In fact there was so much of the darn stuff that, halfway through, I had to put the book to one side in order to regain enough emotional strength to read the rest of it. Which, for me as a veritable Hard-Hearted Annie, is certainly saying something. It’s also distinctly not a book you want to take on holiday with you, even though it is worth reading.
The writing itself is really very good; Shepard knows an excellent turn of phrase when she sees one and has the rare ability to match the image to the character she’s describing, even if the particular character never appears again:
Marion, an older woman whose glasses hung on a hot-pink, charm-riddled chain, stood up gratefully.
Somehow that tells us all about Marion that we need to know. The main character, Summer, also has a very strong and spiky voice which managed to carry me through most of the novel happily enough. However, I did feel that she becomes increasingly whiny towards the end and I found myself wanting to shake her and tell her to get a grip. Mind you, everything dreadful that could possibly happen to one person does seem to happen to Summer, so you can’t really blame her. Not that she does herself any favours – she insists on caring for her mentally ill father when her brother has (sensibly enough) b*****ed off and found a life, even though I suspect her mentally ill father would probably have been better off on his own (and in fact later is, very much so). She then rushes to the bedside of her dying aunt, who several times wonders what on earth she’s doing there. And promptly stays for months to look after her too. Because of this, she puts her academic career and her love life with a very nice and extremely long-suffering young man on hold. Talking of which, it’s an utter mystery to me why we never get the actual scene where Summer and Philip become an item, and it’s only ever talked about afterwards – that was a grave error of editorial judgement in my view, especially as Philip is so lovely. Anyhow, the phrase Serial Martyr comes very strongly to mind when thinking of Summer. God preserve us from them. The woman is, basically, frightened of having her own life and so tries to live through other people.
With all that, I know I’m making her sound unattractive, but for most of the book she isn’t. She does have an absent mother and a difficult father, so I suppose she’s trying her best under difficult circumstances. Here she is remembering an incident as a young girl:
Sometimes, when my father spent whole weekends in bed, I crawled in with him, and we watched cartoons. My father laughed at them as much as I did. When I got out of bed, he stayed, but I still thought I’d accomplished something. ‘Mom thinks you’re being lazy,’ I said to him once, not that long ago. ‘I’m not lazy,’ he answered. ‘I’m just sad.’
Her mother also, and her absence, has a long-lasting effect on Summer:
Sometimes I missed her so much I couldn’t sleep. I missed the way the house smelled of cinnamon candles and perfume. I missed how the phone used to ring. I missed how she’d rush into the house with dry cleaning and take-out and shopping bags. But when I tried to think harder about it, I just couldn’t – a buzzing noise in my head took over.
The quality of the writing and the sheer emotional power of the story work together to create a very interesting heroine, but I think the last fifth of the novel needed cutting in order to keep our sympathies with Summer. In essence, she rather outstays her welcome. When I got to the part where she gives an old schoolfriend a spiel about how said schoolfriend’s daughter could in the future die horribly of a rather nasty hereditary disease and what was said schoolfriend going to do about it, I was, frankly, shocked. Even I – the great child-hater of Vulpes – have sense enough not to say that kind of stuff to anyone, let alone someone I like. It gives we childless women a rather bad name, which we most definitely do not deserve. I think if I’d been in the very public place were Summer has this conversation, I hope I would have had the sense to intervene and tell her to shut it.
All of which ramblings go to show what an astonishing effect this book and this heroine had on me, I have to say. It was draining to read, and also exhilarating, but I felt I got to know a character very very well indeed as she grows to be an adult. Yes, there’s a bit of a mystery plot in terms of the accident and Summer’s father and what really happened all those years ago, but it’s not that interesting and doesn’t appear much, and thankfully doesn’t detract your attention from this fascinating, flawed and just a wee bit too long character novel. Besides, even though I would cut that last fifth very sternly, the final few pages focusing on Summer and her father are fabulous and the end line is a stunner strong enough to take me back to the frame of mind I was in during the first four-fifths of this book. Phew. So a good effort indeed for what is in fact this author’s first novel for adults – a fact that perhaps explains why the sections with Summer as a young girl are somehow more vibrant. Nonetheless, I shall be looking out for Shepard’s second, but this time I will be more prepared for the humdinger devastation of it all.
All The Things We Didn’t Say, Harper Collins 2009, ISBN: 978 0 00 730448 6
[Anne does understand the power of our childhood secrets, but sometimes wishes we could just move on already. For rather less information about her own past, please click here.]