This will probably be one of this reviewer's favorite books of 2004. Justin Cronin's THE SUMMER GUEST takes place, for the most part, at a rustic fishing camp in Maine and centers on the dying wishes of wealthy businessman Harry Wainwright. Harry has been spending the last thirty summers at the camp, having become a friend to the family that runs the place. Joe Crosby is the current owner, running the camp with his wife Lucy. Harry has come home to the camp to have his last dying wishes fulfilled, to fish one last time out on the lakes, and to reveal who will inherit his estate to those at the camp who have come to mean more to him than family.
The novel opens with a prologue that takes us to the end of WWII. A war veteran, Joseph Crosby, has brought his wife Amy and infant son Joe to Maine, taking a risk by purchasing and re-opening a fishing camp that he learned to love as a boy. The prologue depicts a war hero who is about to risk all he has for the hopes of a better life, as the couple has spent their entire life savings to start anew in this remote part of the country.
The prologue is misleading, as the reader will at first assume the story is about a WWII veteran, but it is not. THE SUMMER GUEST instead revolves around Joe, Joseph's son, Joe's wife Lucy, and the wealthy businessman who becomes their friend. It is their relationship that drives the plot to its conclusion, ending with the third generation member of the Crosby family, Kate. What makes this book a must-read is the skill that Cronin uses to create these characters, making each of them come alive, and the story that is behind each character. The relationships that are formed are what make this book worth reading, and the mystery behind what really happened between Joe, Lucy and Harry come together by the end of the book, culminating with a revelation that affects everyone, especially Kate.
A different person narrates each chapter, telling the story of the past from varying viewpoints. Jordan Patterson opens the book with his introduction of Harry Wainwright and his current wife, their baby daughter January, and his grown son Hal from his first marriage. Jordan, who works for Joe and Lucy, spends his time doing odd jobs, helps take guests out on tours by the lake, and helps run the camp. It is a simple life, and he doesn't make a lot of money, but it's what he loves, and he lives at the camp all year round. Jordan's job that weekend is to see that Harry gets his last chance to fish before he dies.
As the novel progresses, the past is told in bits and pieces. Joe and Lucy's story starts with Lucy taking a job at the camp during the summer months. She's a teenager, a few years younger than Joe, and their story takes the novel to the height of the Vietnam War. Joseph takes yet another risk in life when he helps his son dodge the draft by sending him off to Canada, a seemingly contradictory action to take on the part of a WWII vet. A very involved plot line, it also tells the tale of Harry's love for Lucy, whom he met when he was still married to his first wife, who at the time was dying from a terminal disease, and Lucy was still a teenager. It is a love that spanned three decades.
Harry is the core of this novel. It is his story, ultimately intertwined with Joe and Lucy's past, that brings the plot to the present day. Their past lives are slowly revealed by each narrator until the secret is finally told by the end of the book.
The entire novel reads like a story out of another era, with the backdrop of the fishing camp as a reminder of another place and time. It is hard to believe that THE SUMMER GUEST actually takes place in 1994. Reading this book makes one think about lazy summer days from years gone by. If nothing else, Justin Cronin paints a beautiful picture of this out-of-the-way part of the country, creating a wonderfully magical place where the past mingles with the future. And with it, a poignant love story interspersed with tales about the Vietnam War is what makes THE SUMMER GUEST worth reading.
Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton on January 23, 2011
The Summer Guest