Summery Reads of 2020, Part I

Reading with the seasons, I’ve picked up a few books with “summer” or sunshine in their titles. I’ll have more to write up later in August, including novels set during the summer months.

 

A Summer Bird-Cage by Margaret Drabble (1963)

Sarah Bennett, who went straight from university in Oxford to Paris for want of a better idea of what to do with her life, is called home to Warwickshire to be a bridesmaid in the wedding of her older sister, Louise, to Stephen Halifax, a wealthy novelist. Afterwards, Sarah decides to move to London and share a flat with a friend whose marriage has recently ended. As the months pass, she figures out life as a single girl in a big city and attends parties hosted by Louise – back from an extended European honeymoon – and others. Sarah eventually works out, from gossip and from confronting Louise herself, that her sister’s marriage isn’t as idyllic as it appeared. Both sisters find themselves at a loss as for what to do next.

Although Drabble’s debut novel is low on action, its characters are sharply drawn and she delights in placing them in situations and conversations where their true values will emerge. I could relate to Sarah for her bookishness, her observant nature, and her feeling that her best days of being a student are behind her. Drabble was only 24 when this was published; though she was already married and a mother, her distinguished university career (a double first from Cambridge) wasn’t long behind her. Given that Drabble’s sister is novelist A.S. Byatt, it’s impossible not to speculate about the autobiographical inspiration for this picture of sisters who are subconscious rivals and don’t even seem to enjoy spending casual time together.

What with the sisters sharing the maiden name Bennett, you also can’t help but think of one of the classic sister novels, Pride and Prejudice. Drabble makes her debt obvious when Sarah goes over to Louise’s for dinner and comments on the “charming convention of the scene – sisters idling away an odd evening in happy companionship. It was like something out of Middlemarch or even Jane Austen.” I was also reminded of the sister pair in Deerbrook: one got all the beauty, but the other seems much more interesting.

The title comes from a John Webster quotation: “’Tis just like a summer bird-cage in a garden: / the birds that are without are desperate to get / in, and the birds that are within despair and / are in a consumption for fear that they will never / get out.” In other words, it’s easy to miss, and idealize, what you don’t have. Sarah still thinks she can have it all; Louise has realized the choices life forces on you. In modern parlance, this is about adulting and FOMO. It still feels relevant, in a way that seems to anticipate the work of Sally Rooney.

My rating:

 

Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen (2006)

Another sisters novel, and the first book in my Journey through the Day with Books challenge. Meghan Fitzmaurice is a household name as the host of America’s most popular morning talk show, Rise and Shine, but her star fades rapidly when, her microphone still on after she thinks they’ve gone to a commercial break, she murmurs “f***ing a**hole” about a guest who is, admittedly, a creep. It turns out her outburst didn’t come out of nowhere: the night before, her husband, Evan, had announced he was leaving her. Meghan goes to Jamaica to regroup, leaving her younger sister, Bridget, a social worker in the Bronx, to figure out what happened and create a semblance of normalcy for her beloved nephew, Meghan’s college-age son Leo, who’s just back from an exchange program at a farm outside Barcelona.

I liked the New York City setting and the central sister relationship – “Sisters tend to get stuck in their roles and they don’t always know how to get out of them. The pretty one. The practical one,” their aunt Maureen, who raised them after their parents’ deaths, says – but the plot hereafter veers between thin and melodramatic. I didn’t warm to Bridget’s boyfriend Irving, a hardboiled older cop, and I get a little nervous about white ladies creating stereotypical African American characters and giving them names like Tequila (Bridget’s receptionist at the women’s shelter) and Princess Margaret (Tequila’s daughter).

In a nice bit of symmetry, though, the book’s end finds a subdued Meghan hosting a late-night show called Day’s End. I didn’t like this nearly as much as her nonfiction (I loved Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake), but I would read more by Quindlen: I also have a copy of One True Thing, and I have heard that her recent fiction is good.

My rating:

 

And a skim from the library that ties in nicely with the cover image above:

The Butterfly Isles: A Summer in Search of Our Emperors and Admirals by Patrick Barkham (2010)

In 2009, Barkham set out to revive the childhood butterfly-watching hobby he’d shared with his father. The UK is home to 59 species, a manageable number to attempt to see in a season, although it does require a fair bit of travel and insider knowledge. I’ve read too much general history about the human relationship with butterflies (via Rainbow Dust by Peter Marren, which came out a few years later, and An Obsession with Butterflies by Sharman Apt Russell, which Barkham mentions in a Recommended Reading section at the end of the book) to engage with all the context he includes; I focused on the nitty-gritty of the quest running from mid-March to August. I’ll leave it to readers to discover whether he succeeds or not. Nice additions here are the color plates of all the species in question, and the line drawings by Helen Macdonald, yet to come to prominence in her own right – with H Is for Hawk in 2014.

A favorite passage: “Butterflies are symbols of freedom and happiness, sunshine and summer days. They are tokens of romance”

My rating:

 

Have you been reading anything particularly fitting for summer this year?

19 responses

  1. Ha, AS Byatt’s debut novel The Game is also about sisters who have a pretty poor relationship 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, isn’t that funny! You have to wonder how much of their relationship is in their books. I thought The Game was awful, but in general I’m much more of a Byatt than a Drabble fan. I’ve read almost all of Byatt’s books, versus just six by Drabble.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree, I hated it and it had such a great premise 😦

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Always pleased to see Anna Quindlen mentioned and this is one I haven’t read

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It went awry for me at some point, but I did enjoy the setup, characterization and writing, so I’ll look to your blog to find others of her novels worth reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love A Summer Bird-Cage. Drabble came and spoke to us at the beginning of my first term at college and I read everything she had written up to that point (four, I think). I’ve enjoyed some of her later work but it is still the earlier books that I love the most.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll need to try some of her earlier stuff. I’m more familiar with her recent books, which have been lacklustre apart from The Dark Flood Rises.

      Like

  4. I read one of Quindlen’s last year ( the title escapes me!) and I quite enjoyed it. Have yet to read Drabble but I think I have one in the 746 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll be interested to hear which one. Her writing really varies!

      Like

    2. I do remember liking the sound of that one.

      Like

      1. It’s good. A bit issue driven but well done

        Like

  5. We both loved the Patrick Barkham a few years ago, not a skim for us! And as usual, nope, no timely reading. In fact I read a book about Cornwall at Christmas the other month …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My husband enjoyed the Barkham a lot some years back. It was poor timing for me in that I’d read two other comprehensive butterfly histories, and had read Barkham’s most recent book just a month or two before.

      Ha ha! We had Christmas cake from the freezer and listened to Christmas music in our Santa hats on the 25th of July 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Our next Literary Wives book is Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen. We review it September 7th. I did like it, but probably wouldn’t give it more than 3 stars. It had been years since I read one of her books – I can’t remember what I thought of the others I read. It was probably at least 15 years ago.
    The Drabble sounds good!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved Quindlen’s personal essays in Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. I’ll try another novel or two of hers and will hope for better luck.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I bought Drabble’s The Radiant Way before I bought A Summer Bird-Cage, but I’m pretty sure that Summer was the first I actually got around to reading/finishing. Even though I’ve read a lot of Byatt, I’m more of a Drabble fan–the opposite of your preference! One Byatt gap I’d like to fill is The Children’s Book: have you read that one? I’ve been rereading Mariko Tamaki’s graphic novel, This One Summer, which I absolutely love. And I’ve had Elizabeth Taylor’s In a Summer Season mind for a weekend, but haven’t gotten to it yet. Maybe next week? Or, maybe next summer? LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I’ve read everything of Byatt’s bar her little William Morris book and her lit crit (Murdoch and Coleridge/Wordsworth). The Children’s Book didn’t stand out to me at the time, but may be more rewarding on a reread. The one of hers I mean to reread soon is The Biographer’s Tale.

      I enjoyed the Tamaki and the Taylor — the latter was one of my summer picks for 2017.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ohhh, I think we’ve chatted about that. It’s one that I mean to read as well, but I would have to borrow from the library, easier said than done these days.

        Liked by 1 person

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