The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch (Peirene)

Originally published in 1910, The Last Summer is a suspenseful epistolary novella by Ricarda Huch (1864–1947), one of the first German women to earn a PhD. She wrote widely across many fields – history, poetry, fiction, and religion – and had an asteroid named after her, earning Thomas Mann’s accolade of “the First Lady of Germany.” I’m grateful to Peirene for resurrecting this German classic as I have a special love for epistolary novels – traditionally told through nothing but letters. You have to be on the lookout for little clues dotted through the correspondence that will tell you who these characters are, how they’re connected to one another, what you need to know about their pasts, and what’s happening now.

last-summerSet across one May to August in the early 1900s, the book joins the von Rasimkara family at their summer home. In response to student protests, patriarch Yegor, the governor of St. Petersburg, has shut down the university and left for the country. With him are his wife, Lusinya; their three twenty-something children, Velya, Jessika and Katya; and Yegor’s new secretary-cum-bodyguard, Lyu. What the family don’t know, but readers do from the first letter onward, is that Lyu is in league with the student revolutionaries and is in on a plot to assassinate the governor at his summer home.

This central dramatic irony is what fuels much of the book’s tension. All of the von Rasimkaras persist in believing the best about Lyu, even when the evidence seems to point to his deception. Both daughters fall in love with him, Velya calls him their “guardian angel,” and Lusinya is sure of his loyalty even after odd incidents she can’t explain, like finding him standing in their bedroom doorway in the middle of the night and a mysterious letter appearing under her pillow. “In case of doubt, one ought to hold back with one’s judgement,” Lusinya opines.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a “psychological thriller,” as the back cover blurb does, but I do think it’s a compelling picture of how different groups and ideologies can be fundamentally incompatible. In my favorite passage, Lyu describes the von Rasimkara family to his friend Konstantin:

My stay here is fascinating from a psychological viewpoint. The family has all the virtues and defects of its class. Perhaps one cannot even talk of defects; they merely have the one: belonging to an era that must pass and standing in the way of one that is emerging. When a beautiful old tree has to be felled to make way for a railway line, it’s painful to watch; you stand beside it like an old friend, gazing admiringly and in grief until it comes down. It is undeniably a shame about the governor, who is a splendid example of his kind, but I believe that he has already passed his peak.

As I sometimes feel about novellas, the plot is fairly thin and easily could have been spun out to fill a book of twice the length or more. But that is not what Peirene Press books are about. They’re meant to be quick reads that introduce European novellas in translation. This one has a terrific ending – which I certainly won’t spoil, though the title and cover could be read as clues – and is a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a winter evening.


[Peirene issues books in trios. This is the first of the three books in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series. The other two, The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay and Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, will be released later in 2017.]

The Last Summer was published in the UK on February 1st. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.

With thanks to James Tookey of Peirene Press for the free copy for review.

My rating: 3.5 star rating


Other Peirene titles I’ve reviewed:

16 responses

  1. Very nicely done.

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    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve learned to look out for Jamie Bulloch’s name. He usually works on interesting translations and this one sounds no exception.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t often notice who the translator is, though I’ve read enough by Carol Brown Janeway (German) and Sam Taylor (French) to realize their talents.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m newly enthralled by the idea of single-sitting reads. I mean, the kind that are intended to be read in a single-sitting, rather than the kind that one reads that way because s/he can’t put the book down!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Peirene books are certainly designed as one-sitting reads, though I don’t think I ever have read one from start to finish like that. I’m almost always dabbling in 10-15 books at a time!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Another gem from Pereine it seems. I’ve been gradually building my collection of these because everyone I’ve read so far has rewarded the effort

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I once found one at a charity shop, but you don’t see them secondhand very often. I guess people hang onto their collections! I’ve never had a chance to read an entire series, but I’d like to.

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      1. I bought all mine second hand but that was via Book Depository – gave up on the idea of ever finding them in a charity shop!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. This sounds like another good title from Peirene, the perfect afternoon read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. Make it a dark, rainy afternoon 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Yours is the second review I’ve read of this book – definitely one to seek out. I’ve not heard of Peirine books before either. Duly signed up to the newsletter. I feel another collection coming on!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You probably saw Kaggsy’s — much more in-depth than mine!

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      1. Actually no, it was MarinaSofia’s – https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2017/02/26/ricarda-huch-the-last-summer-germany-eu27project/

        But now I’m off to read Kaggsy’s! 😀 I love how each reviewer adds a little more to the overall picture.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. […] is the second in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series; I’ve also reviewed the first, The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch. Tremblay and Huch both tackle the theme of betrayal and the practice of choosing one person to die […]

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  8. […] here along with a few other recent reads). Earlier in the year I reviewed Ricarda Huch’s The Last Summer, and last year I reviewed the Summer anthology from the Wildlife Trusts. “Summer” turns up […]

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  9. […] in the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series; I’ve also reviewed the first two, The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch and The Orange Grove by Larry […]

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