THE BOOK OF SUMMERS is Emylia Hall’s astounding debut novel about a sweet child who grows up under unusual circumstances, defined by the split of her parents in the middle of childhood. In the beginning, Beth Lowe is an adult recalling vivid childhood memories --- experiences conjured by a scrapbook that was mailed to her by an old friend, her mother’s lover from a Hungarian village.
"In every page of this breathtaking novel is a strong sense of place and humanity. Readers will really appreciate the solid, artistic, beautifully descriptive quality of Emylia Hall’s writing.... Those who enjoy fiction and family dramas should love THE BOOK OF SUMMERS, a touching, emotive read about love and the value of family."
Beth’s strange family relationships were marked inexorably the day her parents split during a family vacation, after which her life diverged into two vastly different worlds and cultures. Beth’s mother, Marika, was always drawn to Hungary; it was her homeland but was shut to her while the Iron Curtain stood. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, Marika felt she had to see it again, and being there was the impetus for her choice to stay while her family returned to England without her.
That day, David and Marika enter into an odd but mostly functional family arrangement wherein Beth sets out to visit Marika each summer while David keeps her for the rest of the year in England. Beth’s Hungarian summers with her mother become treasured adventures, and her situation bears no similarities to a typical custody suit or divorce arrangement. There never is any fighting; no legalities or formal arrangements have to be made. A date is simply set when Marika can expect her daughter. After her arrival, Beth settles into the breezy natural comfort of Marika’s confidences, friendship and daily life, for the days it lasts. Marika’s home is called the “Villa Serena,” and she lives with her lover there, a free-spirited artist named Zoltan, who treats Beth like an instant friend.
Naturally, the complicated emotional circumstances surrounding Beth’s abandonment rarely surface but never leave her. Throughout her childhood summers, she learns to bury her hardened emotions deeply and keep her bitterness hidden. Often she feels greatly frustrated by her relationship with her emotionally distant father and continually insecure about the love her mother shows --- even though it's sincere. They share real connections, but Beth is reluctant to accept this. Surprisingly, her insecurity seems to be mirrored in Marika, who is equally desperate to win her daughter’s heart even while she’s clearly very comfortable with their arrangement. All parties look forward to Beth’s visits with Marika every year, even Beth’s father, David, who remains consistently cryptic and distant but supportive and encouraging nonetheless.
Marika’s home is lovely and welcome because of its natural disorder, and her Hungary is a simple but beautiful place. Their bohemian getaway is peaceful because of its loving inhabitants and unconcerned atmosphere, and all who love Beth recognize that her visits to Hungary are life-giving experiences. Over the years, she feels more and more free and serene, and Hungary itself provides a unique atmosphere and unique people.
Beth’s quiet, blissful summer days become defining moments in her life even more once she meets a dear friend, Tamas, a Hungarian boy with whom she feels a soulful connection. Her friendship with him continues throughout their childhood and blossoms as they become teenagers of a certain age, whereupon Beth feels some novel desperation to forge an ill-conceived plot to stay in Hungary permanently so she can remain with Tamas and her mother.
In every page of this breathtaking novel is a strong sense of place and humanity. Readers will really appreciate the solid, artistic, beautifully descriptive quality of Emylia Hall’s writing. Hall does a fabulous job of contrasting Beth’s ordinary life in Devon with the graceful bohemian lifestyle of Hungarian culture. The characterization in this book is wonderful and quite impressive for a first novel; I was surprised to discover that this is a debut. Those who enjoy fiction and family dramas should love THE BOOK OF SUMMERS, a touching, emotive read about love and the value of family.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on June 1, 2012