Summer People by Brian Groh is the story of Nathan, a self absorbed young man (and I use the term ‘man’ loosely) who works part time in a library in Cleveland. His dad hooks him up with a job as a caretaker for a few weeks to the elderly Ellen at her old-money summer home in an exclusive New England community.
Nathan quickly discovers Ellen’s situation is more complex than he originally thought. She’s been through some sort of accident the previous summer (no one is very forthcoming about what happened). Consequently, her behavior and personality have changed, and her mental stability is questionable. Nathan’s not sure he’s qualified to care for her, yet he stays on for selfish reasons. He doesn’t have much to go back to in his real life, so it’s just easier and more convenient for him to stay on.
Nathan doesn’t fit in well with the rich crowd. He befriends Eldwin, a pastor who is there for the summer to serve the community. Eldwin is a former punk rocker with a drinking problem, a depressed wife, and a cute nanny. They go on walks, go kayaking, drink together, and talk about life.
A college dropout with few prospects, Nathan doesn’t have a lot going on. He’s immature and insecure, seeing events and people only as they relate to him. He’s lonely and sad, drinks a lot of rum and cokes, and lies to boost his self esteem. He exaggerates his abilities and minor accomplishments in an attempt to impress others. He’s socially awkward and constantly comparing himself to the people around him.
He’s not much of a caretaker either. He does just the bare minimum of what he should for Ellen. They do a lot of tv watching. They kill time by taking drives and occasionally going to the club to watch tennis. Once vibrant, beautiful, and popular, Ellen is a shell of her former self. Nathan is forever waiting for Ellen to take a nap in her chair or go off to bed so he can leave the house to see his “girlfriend”, who he believes he is falling in love with, but in truth, barely knows.
Things happen. A house burns down. Nathan gets the snot kicked out of him. He has sex with his love interest. A small boat sinks. There are a couple of love triangles, a fall and a ride in an ambulance. Yet even with these dramatic elements, the book feels sort of flat and one dimensional.
This is a frustrating book, because at the end, nothing has changed. Nathan hasn’t learned anything or grown up one bit. Ellen is still a mystery. I had no deeper understanding of the characters at the close of the book than I had in the beginning.
I think Ellen’s story would have been much more interesting than Nathan’s, with her failed romances and suicide attempts, her colorful past and boatload of money. People whisper about her when she walks into a room. I wished throughout the book that her character could have been more fully imagined and developed. Summer People is Brian Groh’s debut novel, and while I think he has a ton of potential, this book never fully takes off.
Summer People is another book with at least two different covers. The one with the oars is the cover for Target’s Bookmarked Book Club. I doubt I ever would have picked up the one with the legs.
Which do you prefer?
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