The Summer Guest

When my mom sent along Broken for You she said that the one she really wanted me to read was Justin Cronin’s The Summer Guest (2003; a second novel—he won a PEN/Hemingway award for Mary and O’Neil).

So, I read it.

It’s a lovely and moving book. And, in the category of uplifting books about the terminally ill, head and shoulders above the Kallos. But that’s unfair. The book, set in a fishing camp in rural Maine (about an hour north of Waterville, so inland and remote, lake country not the coast), follows the lives of employees and guests one summer when a very rich frequent guest comes to the camp with some quite specific final requests. It’s one of those one-character-at-a-time, flashback heavy novels but in this case, the device builds suspense rather than feeling cheap. And the way that kind people cope with missed chances in life is really movingly handled. It’s rare to read a book that has so many adults in it, so many characters who create good lives even after disappointment. For example, the prologue describes a man—lawyer and veteran, disfigured by a shell in WWII, taking his wife and infant son to live in remote Maine. He cannot stand to live where everyone pities his ravaged face. His wife, once a concert-level pianist, comes along with some trepidation. But this doesn’t turn into a story about a bitter marriage or soured hopes or a sad and lonesome retreat. I worried, with this set up, that I might be reading a paler, sadder Angle of Repose, but Cronin’s characters accept their fate and build their lives as best they can from there. The characters are rich, the plot is both surprising and satisfying, and the language is assured, sensitive and intelligent. A really, really fine and diverting read.