A Guest Review by Aunt Lynn
One Sentence Review: One of the best books I’ve read this year.
Billy Bronner is, to all appearances, every inch the 1950s American dream: handsome, clever, captain of the high school football team, looks good enough in tight jeans that people can even forget he’s Jewish. Then the new guy on the block, the enigmatic Leonard Nachman, turns his head, and over the summer Billy discovers a new world of romance and love—in a man’s arms.
But when Kit O’Reilly, Billy’s best friend and shadow, comes home after spending the summer with relatives, he finds Billy acting… differently. Soon enough, it becomes obvious that this change is related to Len, and Kit will have to decide if he’ll accept the relationship Billy and Len have forged, or if he’ll push Billy and their longtime friendship away.
It looks like Summer Song is the first book by this author and I am amazed and impressed with her first published effort. Though not completely flawless, it is very well-written and plotted, and one of the best books I’ve read this year. I am sure I will come back to visit my new young friends again. Though I can’t speak to the historical accuracies, to me it all sounded damn-near perfect and it’s in the recent-enough past that there will those among us who remember this time with fond memory.
The story, set in 1955 in an unnamed coastal (I’m guessing southern-ish) California town, opens with seventeen-year-old Kit returning from a summer away visiting relatives to find his best friend of thirteen years, Billy, acting very much unlike himself on the first day of school of their senior year. Normally always and completely open, laid-back and jovial, he is now distant, secretive, sullen and lying. And it all seems to be because of the new kid at school, Leonard. Kit can’t figure it out and it’s driving him crazy. Now Billy and and this Nachman cat are going off to do who-knows-what without him — Kit’s sure it’s illegal, like drug smuggling — but then he stumbles upon the truth and man, was he off base. He can barely get his head around it and must decide how he’s going to handle it. Can their long friendship survive the stress, and is there a way for Kit to accept what is definitely not acceptable in that day and age?
This unusual, interesting and wonderful YA tale is very character-driven and set back in an innocent time where coolness was gauged by the kind of car you drove and how well you could dance and how far up under a girl’s skirt you could touch before you got smacked and told to drive her home. When kids actually listened to their parents, had and abided by curfews and took school seriously. When boys took their girls to the local make-out spot after a socially-acceptable amount of time, and sometimes you got to third base if you were lucky because scoring a home run with your steady was to be saved for after marriage. When there were “those” kinds of girls and “not that kind of girl” girls. It was also a time when there was no clue about boys being with boys, the possibility so foreign and taboo that it was never a consideration when trying to figure why two boys hung together like Billy and Len did.
It’s narrated in uncommon, alternating — and mostly present tense — first-person by multiple characters (including Kit’s girlfriend, Caitlyn), which took just a little bit getting used to and ultimately I found that it worked just fine. It allowed me to get close to the characters and their personalities by allowing for me to be in their heads as first-person does. Note that Leonard’s voice is told via diary entries throughout, which I thought was an interesting twist.
Strong themes of friendship, love, acceptance and sexual discovery run through Summer Song, with two related, but separate plotlines: one of Billy and Len’s relationship and one of Kit figuring out, then how to deal with that relationship. The author never takes us on a trip to angst-landia, even though the period and subject matter could easily have made that an easy choice, and there were moments of laugh-out-loud humor. Also, the smexxin is graphic — but not too — with just enough to flavor without overwhelming, and fit in well with the story.
I thought the characters were marvelous, and I had fun spending time with these kids. I became invested in Kit for a few reasons. First, his voice is what you hear for the first three, quite entertaining chapters. Second, I thought it was really interesting to get the perspective of a non-lover protagonist in these stories, something we don’t often get to do. With him being Billy’s best friend, I wanted to see how he handled the situation, and I was happy to be in his head for that.
Described as “Not only..incredibly goodlooking, talented, dexterous, clever, and charming, he is also — drum roll, please — pretty much a nice guy,” I adored Billy and how much he wanted to keep Kit’s friendship, how important that was to him. I also loved him describing all of the things he loved about Leonard — his accent, how clever he is, how smart he is, what his face looks like when he comes (and how he toys with us before he goes into the description):
This thing, anyway, the thing I like most, it’s an expression he has. You’re probably shocked to hear that, aren’t you? I bet you thought I was gonna say I liked his cock or something, which, you know, I do, but as far as I’m aware it doesn’t actually do any tricks that other cocks can’t do. I mean, I may be mistaken, here. But you’d have to ask Leonard about that. To date, his cock has proven itself capable of performing admirably in all fields, but I’m not about to write any odes to it just yet.
I think perhaps my favorite character is Leonard. I found his voice to be different than the other two boys because of his upbringing, schooling and previous geographic habitat (the other two are born and raised in coastal CA and have gone through the public school system, and Len has come from private school in Massachusetts). His grammar is better, his vocabulary more advanced on the whole, and he’s a bit more worldly because of his educational exposure. I loved how he turned to ancient Roman poetry for clues and tips for man-on-man smexxin since there wasn’t anywhere else he could go at the time. Here’s his response to Billy’s reaction of him suggesting “sodomy,” which explains a lot about him:
And I guess I never realized till then that he wouldn’t have even heard of this, you know? It’s not like it ever gets talked about, but up here, in the ass-end of surfside California, they don’t even have the resources, not really. Obviously, I blame the educational system…My prep school back home was the kind of place that had uniforms and house colors, and sent its alumni (yeah, they called them that) to goddamn Oxford. It wasn’t a ridiculously expensive school, as these places go, but my God, was it up itself. And I guess it’s pretty unsurprising for a school that is so damn far up its own ass to want its boys to know about the ancients being always up each other’s asses. In, of course, the literal sense, and not the metaphorical.
Though not as fleshed, I enjoyed Caitlyn, Kit’s girl, who actually has quite a bit of screentime and even has her own narration chapter. I found it interesting to see her point of view of what was happening, even though she was just about as clueless as everyone else.
A few minor niggles:
First, there mention of what is obviously Teflon (“maybe it’s got a nonstick coating or something, like one of those expensive frying pans”) in the first chapter, and something didn’t ring true to me, so I looked it up. Non-stick pans were not commercially available in the US until 1960, so how could he have known about it? Tefal wasn’t even being sold in France until 1956.
Second, I found a timing problem. Leonard and his mother left coastal California on August 30 and arrived in Massachusetts on September 1 (then left MA again on September 5 to start school September 6). Unless they have some super-sonic cars in 1955, that trip takes probably three to four days and is close to 3000 miles (Both Google and Yahoo! maps put it in the high 40s hours driving time). I guess conceivably they took turns at the wheel and sleeping in the car and drove straight through, but I find that hard to believe. I drove from Pittsburgh to Berkeley (approximately 2600 miles) and it took three and some days driving 12-14 hours per day with little stopping for rests.
Wonderful story, wonderful characters, just…wonderful. Lovers of YA should run right out and grab this one.