Thursday, August 9, 2012

Great beach read: 'The Book of Summers' by Emylia Hall

U.S. bookcover
There are times when I judge a book by its cover.

I appreciate a cover design that makes me want to read what's inside and is something I flip back to and study now and again as a read along. The (U.S.) cover of "The Book of Summers" by Emylia Hall (Harlequin MIRA, June 2012, $15.95) in my opinion, does not. The flirty, blossom-bedecked cover with its title in gilded flowery font suggests the story inside will be light and girly.

Light and girly this debut novel isn't.

It took me about the first two chapters (65 pages) to commit to finishing the book. (If I'm not enjoying a book after about that much, I'll drop it.) But I'm glad I stayed the course.

Because of a bit of mystery in the first bit, I jumped to the wrong conclusion that "The Book of Summers" might be about to turn into some kind of fairy story. Not that there's anything wrong with writing about the magical world of fairies - it's just I didn't want to waste precious hours reading about them.

But I had a hunch the book, which is Hall's debut, might be a keeper. So I took "The Book of Summers" on vacation with me, incidentally to the lake house where I spent the summers of my youth - kind of the perfect spot to read this book about a woman recalling her girlhood summers. I also packed three other novels and numerous magazines - because I am ambitious and foolish enough to weigh down my luggage with superfluous reading material. However, this 348-page novel is the only one I finished during my week at the lake. I read dreadfully slow, especially when surrounded by my four gorgeous nieces and cutie godson.

In the novel, Beth Lowe, 30, is a clearly unhappy young professional Brit living in London who gets a surprise visit from her dad. He bears a package from Hungary, where Beth spent her summers as a child. But for reasons that aren't immediately clear to the reader, not only does Beth not open the package right away, she kicks her dad out in a huff and embarks on a pensive pouty trip to the local park.

There, after much trepidation, she opens the parcel to reveal a scrapbook of sorts from Marika, the woman who ended up splitting from Beth's dad when Beth was just a kid. There's also a letter from Marika's longtime boyfriend, Zoltan, informing the now-adult Beth that Marika has died.

The artfully and thoughtfully put together scrapbook, which bears the name "The Book of Summers," (hence the book title, which I still don't love) depicts the seven summers Beth - or Erszebet as she's called in Hungarian - spent with Marika.

Hall employs a device of jumping from present-day England to Beth's long-ago summer trips to Hungary, when she was ages 9 to 16. Beth's England is such a drab and dreary place, in contrast to the blazing bright jaunts to Hungary.

Through the book, Beth is drawn to re-live the sun-drenched summer trips, which she has tried to suppress in her memory. The reader experiences them in chronological order, starting with Beth - or Erzsi as she was then known - at age 9.

UK bookcover
Hall's descriptions of Hungary and the hilly landscape surrounding Villa Serena, the home where Marika and Zoltan live, literally paint the picture (literally and figuratively - Zoltan is an artist) of the fairytale like land for the reader. The descriptive imagery likely comes from the author's own seemingly magical trips
 to the colorful country in her youth. Hall is a daughter of an English artist and a Hungarian quiltmaker. She spent many of her childhood summers in Hungary.

"It was a visit characterized by small details, the minutiae of time well spent, as though after the days at the pool and in the studio my senses had been heightened to all the little things. The sparkly silver color of my toenails after Marika had painted them, and my hair - braided by her when it was wet from the bath, so that later when I shook it out under the sun, I wore a halo of tight curls. What else? A hot-dog sausage, its split skin glistening, with a perfect blob of muddy mustard beside it, eaten off a paper plate under the shade of a plane tree." Hall writes, from 10-year-old Erzsi's point of view, one summer in Hungary.

The senses are a big part of Hall's writing, and she sets the stage well in this coming-of-age novel. We know from the start that Beth/Erzsi is angry and has experienced a life-changing disappointment. Hall aptly writes the teen angst we all had and the emotional responses to we made/make in response to seemingly insignificant happenings - such as when she scolds Marika for taking on a tutoring student during Erzsi's short visit. It's clear that Erszi is insanely jealous of the student, a girl who is good friends with Erzsi's Hungarian beau, Tamas. Then teenaged Erzsi lashes out at Marika in a childish and manipulative way that resonated with me - reminiscent of how I might have sparred with my own dear mother back in the day. I thought Hall painted a telling picture of the mother-daughter relationship, and aptly described the regret the child felt almost immediately. 

We discover why Erszi's heart was broken near the end. But I'm not going to spoil it for you. "The Book of Summers" is worth a read, even/especially if you're a book title/cover snob like me. I thought it dragged a bit at the start, but it hooked me eventually. I wanted to now what happened to the adult Beth, and why her relationships with her father and everyone around her suffered. Hall's writing is lovely and the story poignant. Great for a summer holiday, in Hungary if you can swing it.

Book summary (from the author's website):

Beth Lowe has been sent a parcel.

Inside is a letter informing her that her long-estranged mother has died, and a scrapbook Beth has never seen before. Entitled The Book of Summers, it’s stuffed with photographs and mementos compiled by her mother to record the seven glorious childhood summers Beth spent in rural Hungary.

It was a time when she trod the tightrope between separated parents and two very different countries; her bewitching but imperfect Hungarian mother and her gentle, reticent English father; the dazzling house of a Hungarian artist and an empty-feeling cottage in deepest Devon. And it was a time that came to the most brutal of ends the year Beth turned sixteen.

Since then, Beth hasn’t allowed herself to think about those years of her childhood. But the arrival of The Book of Summers brings the past tumbling back into the present; as vivid, painful and vital as ever.

Watch the book trailer here.

About the author (from the author's website):

Emylia Hall was born in 1978 and grew up in the Devon countryside, the daughter of an English artist and a Hungarian quilt-maker. After studying at York University and in Lausanne, Switzerland, Emylia spent five years working in a London ad agency, before moving to the French Alps. It was there that she began to write. Hall now lives in Bristol with her husband, also an author. Chosen by ELLE as one of the most anticipated debut novelists for 2012, Emylia was also one of three writers to appear in the Red Pages Hot 100. THE BOOK OF SUMMERS is her first novel, and is inspired by evocative memories of childhood holidays spent in rural Hungary. It’s published by Headline in the UK (where it’s a Richard and Judy Summer Book Club pick), MIRA in the US & Canada, and will be translated into eight languages. She is currently at work on her second novel which is due for publication in 2013. 

Click here to see Hall's blog.

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