Summerlong is the latest stand-alone work by Peter S. Beagle, an author widely lauded and respected for his skillful turns of phrase, complicated characters, and his ability to credibly blend the fantastic into the mundane. In Summerlong, Beagle turns his gaze on Puget Sound and a small island off Seattle’s coast, an unremarkable little place which undergoes a transformation over the course of just a few months, changing the lives of its residents in profound and irrevocable ways.
The greatest changes come to Joanna Delvecchio and Abe Aronson, a late-middle-aged couple who have settled into a comfortable routine over their two decades of coupleship: she’s a flight attendant and basketball fanatic, he’s a history professor and homebrewer. When Del isn’t flying the friendly skies, she stays at Abe’s place on Gardner Island, eating at their favorite diner — the Skyliner — or spending time with her adult daughter, Lily. One February night, Del and Abe meet a uniquely beautiful new waitress, who introduces herself as Lioness Lazos, and ends up moving into Abe’s garage because she has nowhere else to stay. As weeks pass and an early, unusually potent spring settles over the island, Del and Abe begin to wonder if Lioness’ past might hold more than a difficult marriage, they each begin to explore seemingly unattainable interests, previously considered no more than youthful flights of fancy, and Lily quickly moves from infatuation with Lioness to obsession.
Seattle and its surrounding areas are described in loving, careful detail, from the hustle and bustle of Pike Place Market to the colors of the Olympic mountain range. The natural environment is as much an essential character as Abe or Del; orcas and flowers are as deeply affected by Lioness’ presence as the humans she interacts with. Beagle describes flora and fauna with more of a naturalist’s eye than a poet’s, and much of the plot depends on ordinary people doing ordinary things, so it was sometimes easy to forget that the seasons were off-kilter or that a very strange woman had drifted into town. However, the way that the family dynamic between Abe, Del, and Lily shifts over the course of the novel is well-written. The interactions between Abe and Del, in particular, read as an honest depiction of a relationship shared by two people who have grown older together.
There’s also a very familiar classical myth folded into Summerlong, one that might be obvious to some readers just from reading the jacket copy, but Beagle handles it well and makes the participants accessible and realistic. Lioness’ identity is hinted at early in the text, and it takes a long while for Del and Abe to catch on, but the actual reveal is still enjoyable. That said, the way Beagle involves Lily in that myth could have used more nuance and explanation: her obsession with Lioness is supposed to be special, but her mannerisms establish her as someone who falls into one-sided romantic attachments easily and engages in dramatic over-reactions when situations don’t go her way. Since Abe and Del’s partnership feels so real and fully-lived in, warts and all, Lily seems that much more immature and broad-stroke by comparison.
Ultimately, Summerlong is a pleasurable read, with complicated characters and an excellent portrayal of a specific place and time. Readers who are looking for a mature perspective in fantasy are sure to enjoy this.
I think that I would like to read this one for two reasons: (1) Peter S. Beagle has never let me down before, and (2) I once spent an afternoon on Lummi Island, in Puget Sound, and found it to be a very magical place indeed. Thanks, Jana!
I think you’d enjoy this one quite a bit, Sandy!
Puget Sound is one of my favorite settings, and I like the idea of an older couple being near the center of the book. Beagle always writes good prose. Thanks, Jana.
Happy to oblige, Marion! If you end up reading this one, I hope you enjoy it.