Beth’s father travels from Devon to London bringing with him a parcel from Hungary that causes Beth’s past, and its terrible secret, to return vividly to the present. Inside the parcel is a scrapbook, ‘The Book of Summers’, compiled by Beth’s estranged mother, Marika, containing the childhood photos from the summers Beth spent in Hungary and a letter from Marika’s Hungarian lover, Zoltan, informing her that Marika has died.
As Beth looks through the Book of Summers, she revisits each of her summer holidays spent with her mother in Hungary and the subsequent return to her English father until they came to an abrupt end the year Beth turned sixteen. This is a coming of age story of a girl caught between two very different worlds and two equally different parents.
The Book of Summers is the debut novel of Emylia Hall herself the daughter of an English artist and Hungarian quilt maker who spent many childhood summers in Hungary. The best writing in the story are the descriptions of Hungary itself, which Hall presents with passion and vibrancy. The heat, the food and the languid lazy days Beth (known in her childhood as Erzsi) spends whilst visiting her mother are vivid and beguiling and if they don’t make you consider visiting Hungary nothing will. However, the rest of the writing is at times clichéd and over done. The book is written from Erzsi’s point of view, mainly when she was a child. Your reviewer found that the voice of Erzsi was often one tinged with her adult perspective and therefore it didn’t always ring true.
The story switches between the present day where Beth is looking at the Book and then slips into the past where, as Erzsi, she experiences those magical summers with her mother. Eventually the pattern whereby Beth looks at one year’s photos and is then back in that moment becomes a little wearing and predictable. The cover states ‘Seven perfect summers. And then it happened.’ At only the fourth summer half way through the book, I began to despair that anything of worth would happen and really it doesn’t until the final summer. On the whole the story is perfectly nice and readable, but nothing really happens. Erzsi falls in love with both Hungary and a local boy Tamas and a little in love with Zoltan and her relationship with her mother develops well. There’s little if any conflict, no jeopardy for Erzsi and I began to not care at all what happened in her last summer. And yet for all that, the book is oddly compelling and as the story finally begins to explain the terrible secret, the momentum increases and the dénouement itself is surprising and moving.
Hall marks out a huge contrast between the drab greyness of dull boring England and the rich hot vibrancy of Hungary and this difference extends to the characters with Erzsi spanning the divide. I wasn’t in the end sure how Hall wished us to feel about these characters. Erzsi herself I found difficult to understand, as her reactions to some of the events felt off kilter and unnecessary and in the end I didn’t really like her. Her father is broken and so quiet he hardly says a word and again I didn’t warm to him wishing instead that I could shake him out of his stupor. It is Marika who makes the novel and yet hers is a story most people would naturally recoil from. After all, she leaves her husband and her child to return from their family holiday alone to pursue her heart’s desire in Hungary. A mother leaving her child is perhaps the last great taboo and yet Hall seems to leave discussion of that unchallenged. I found this a great shame as it would have lifted the novel to a different level. Instead we are led to admire her vibrancy and bravery in living the idyllic life.
Any Cop?: In the end I had mixed feelings about this book, wishing that Hall’s passion for Hungary had translated into passion for the potential complexities in the story. This is a book about love despite everything; love in the face of imperfection and the final acceptance of that. It’s a book to read on a sun drenched holiday where the unchallenging nature of the story will gently relax you.