Tag Archives: iowa

SUMMERLONG by Dean Bakopoulus

I’ve seen Summerlong by Dean Bakopoulos on many 2015 summer book lists – usually enjoying glowing reviews – and it was positively reviewed by a few sources I trust (Book Chatter and Ron Charles), so I decided to give it a go.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me.

Summerlong is about an odd love square (is that a thing?) that forms one hot summer in Grinnell, Iowa. Claire and Don are married, in their late 30s, and at a precipice in their marriage. Don, a realtor, has hidden their dire financial situation from his wife, and the two now face foreclosure on their house and an inevitable bankruptcy filing. Meanwhile, Charlie, an underemployed actor in his late 20s, is back in town to go through his father’s papers and prepare his house for sale after his father is moved to a nursing home with dementia. And ABC, a recent Grinnell graduate, has returned to her college town after the death of her best friend/lover, mired in grief.

One night, these characters interact in an unexpected way: Don comes across ABC lying in the grass, smoking pot, and joins her for an intimate but chaste evening of sleeping next to each other and getting stoned. Claire goes for a midnight run and meets Charlie in the parking lot of a convenience store, where they share an instant attraction. Over the course of the next 3 months, the characters couple off in a variety of combinations, sometimes consummating their attractions and sometimes not. Don and Claire’s marriage deteriorates until they decide to separate, while ABC floats along in her grief and depression and Charlie tries, unsuccessfully, to find his father’s missing manuscript and redeem his academic reputation.

I really didn’t like Summerlong.  I did appreciate some of the insights into marital harmony and middle age that Bakopoulos infused into Claire and Don’s relationship. But I found the other relationships unrealistic and strange, and I had a really hard time with most of the dialogue in the book. I don’t think people talk to each other in real life like they do in Summerlong. Claire and Don were blunt and sharp to the point of meanness – do most married people act like that to each other?

Lots of drugs, lots of sex. I don’t have a problem with that, but they became a crutch for the author. These characters didn’t have much to say to each other or a genuine attraction, so he just had them get stoned and hook up. Problem solved! There are also too many unlikely coincidences.

There’s a feisty old grandmother type who says it like it is and eventually saves some of these doomed characters. Meh.

Didn’t these characters have ANYONE else to hang out with other than the other three?

Don and Claire’s kids – didn’t THEY find the whole setup kind of weird?

Why is Claire so angry all the time? And why hasn’t she worked for the last 10 years? For a feminist New Yorker, she sure depends on her man to make everything better.

These questions plagued me as I read Summerlong. I just didn’t get it. I know I am in the minority on this one – people seem to love this book. It just made me angry.

SOME LUCK by Jane Smiley


This fall, Jane Smiley released Some Luck, the first in a trilogy about a midwestern family, the Langdons. Smiley will ultimately publish three books about the family covering the years 1920-2020, with each chapter dedicated to one year. This first installment – Some Luck – covers the years 1920-1953.

The Langdons are made up of a couple – Walter and Rosanna – and their five children Frank, Joey, Lilian, Henry and Claire. They live on a farm in a rural town in Iowa called Denby. When the book opens, Walter and Rosanna are young parents, and Walter is trying to make a living as a farmer. Some Luck follows the family through the births of the five children, the Depression, World War II, and the 50s, as the kids grow up and start to have their own lives. Frank spends four years in the Army in Europe, where he escapes death many times and sees the horror of the war up close. Joey stays close to home, learning how to farm and introducing his own ideas about seeds, harvests, and machinery. Lillian marries and moves away to Washington DC, opening up the scope of the book beyond Iowa and the war.

In Some Luck, Smiley creates a memorable, diverse family, exploring each member’s inward feelings, disappointments, and hopes.    Just like in life, some years are more momentous (births, deaths, marriages) than others (Fourth of July parties, snowstorms). But each contributes important details and texture about the Langdons and their extended family. Some of the quieter and more domestic passages proved to be the ones I remembered best. I also enjoyed the historical details that gave a glimpse into daily life on a farm 100 years ago.

As it should, with 2/3 still to go, Some Luck feels unfinished. The first book covers the life arc of the family patriarch, so the closure of his story at the end is natural, but there are still many characters with many life stages ahead. The book had a slow start for me (lots of farming) but I gradually found myself getting more and more engrossed. I am looking forward to the release of books 2 and 3 so that I can pick up where I left off with the Langdons. I miss them already.

I listened to Some Luck on audio for the most part, and the performance was just OK for me. The narrator had a very particular way of talking, and it was sort of simplistic, the way you’d talk to a child. That narration was OK for the early chapters about little kids, but it felt out of sync with the more serious parts of the book. I also didn’t like some of the different tones she took on for different characters – I’d rather she had just read all the voices the same. I think I enjoyed the parts of the book that I read more than those I listened to.

Overall – strong start to what promises to be a rewarding trilogy. Tomorrow, I will post my notes from a Q&A I attended with Jane Smiley this fall.