Summerlings by Lisa Howorth is a short novel about a pack of 10 (11?) year-old boys living just outside Washington, DC in the 1950s. John, the narrator, is best friends with two other boys, Max and Ivan, on his block. Together, they explore the neighborhood on their bikes and conjecture about their neighbors, a mix of expats, diplomats, feds and potential spies. Some are friendly, some are not, and the boys spend their long summer days trying to figure out more about the adults around them. They are particularly intrigued by Elena, Ivan’s glamorous, mysterious Ukranian aunt, who is kind to them, prompting them all to fall in love with her. Meanwhile, John’s mother is off “recovering” in a nearby sanitarium (depression?) and his father has moved out, leaving him and his distant older sister under the care of their grandparents.
Summerlings takes place about 3 blocks from my house, so I loved the DC references sprinkled liberally throughout the book. Howorth even mentioned my street at one point. That was fun. Generally, though, I had a hard time getting into this book. Not much happens, there is tons of detail, and the plot is pretty superficial. Summerlings takes place during the Cold War and people are therefore suspicious of each other, and adults drink a lot and don’t tell their kids much of what is going on. That’s about it. There is one subplot involving the kids’ plot to steal a rare, dangerous spider from the National Museum of Natural History, and that is as close to suspense as I got from the book. (I could actually picture their whole bike ride down to the Mall as Howorth described it, so that was fun.) But generally, Summerlings was disappointing. I almost didn’t finish it, but because it was so short, I powered through.
If you want to read a sweet book about 11 year olds coming of age during a less complicated time, and you’re interested in the 50s in Washington, DC, then give Summerlings a try. But if you’re looking for something more substantive, I’d give it a pass.