11 Novels That Take Place Over One Summer
Every season is primed for a certain type of story, but summer — the longed-for, crazy summer — is when things get interesting
It wasn’t until I moved to the West Coast that I realized how much I relied on seasons to mark the passage of time. Without dropping leaves or sultry nights, time simply moved on. I’d be surprised to learn that only two weeks had passed since an event that felt like ages ago, or that it had already been three months since a memory that felt and looked like yesterday. I’m back East, where New Yorkers are notably obsessed with framing their anecdotes with seasonal references; if there was a beautiful spring or a bad winter, they mention it. We moved downtown last winter. The streets were a mess! It makes sense; seasons are natural tools for story-tellers. Like an original Oulipo device, they force a beginning and an end, serving as handy yardsticks for character growth. Plus, as any high school English class can tell you, seasons come with a ton of metaphors.
Every season seems primed for a certain type of story: winter’s tales of hardship, spring’s sexual awakening. But summer — longed-for, crazy summer — is when things get interesting. Children and students are cut loose, primed for trouble and the kind of learning that only happens outside the classroom. Adults are allowed to act on impulse because everyone’s gone crazy in the heatwave! Even lazy summer days lead somewhere unexpected: think of the Divers picnicking on the French Riviera before a duel breaks out or Tom Riply sipping a Negroni while planning a murder.
Here, then, are eleven books that take place over the course of a single summer.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon began writing this novel when he was an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, so it’s no surprise that the book is informed by summer as experienced by a student, or what I think of as Summer with a capital S. This Summer is the ultimate freedom. The midway point between a job done and a fresh start, it allows for total, guilt-free self-indulgence (or at least it did in the era before internships). Art Bechstein, Chabon’s protagonist, does what many do in Summer, he goes looking for an adventure, which is exactly what he gets as he spins around Pittsburgh with the unlikely duo of “fancy” Arthur Lecomte and book-loving biker Cleveland Arning.
Skios by Michael Frayn
This comic novel is set on the fictional Greek island of Skios during the summer conference of the Fred Toppler Foundation, a dubious organization that promotes “civilized values.” The central conceit — a zany mix-up of identity and luggage — is unbelievable in the age of Google, but it’s pulled off by Frayn, the master of farce.
The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell
This Booker Prize-winning novel is one of J.G Farrell’s “Empire Trilogy” in which he explores the decline of the British Empire. The Siege of Krishnapur presents a fictionalized version of the real siege of Cawnpore that occurred during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. As the summer unfolds and the siege by the native sepoys presses on, the situation of the British residents of Krishnapur steadily deteriorates.
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
Dandelion Wine is a series of linked short stories that follow twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding during one summer in Green Town, a fictionalized version of Bradbury’s hometown of Waukegan, Illinois. Douglas describes the dandelion wine that his grandfather makes as “summer on the tongue…summer caught and stoppered,” but he may as well be describing the book.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
On the morning of August 7, 1974, a French high-wire artist named Philippe Petit completed not just one but eight tightrope walks between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. This crazy-yet-true event is what connects every character in Colum McCann’s novel as they wander through a broken-down New York City during the last summer of the Vietnam War.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
The author of the Moomin series that I loved as a kid wrote a handful of books for adults, including this story of a six-year-old girl and her grandmother who are spending the summer on an island in the Gulf of Finland. The Summer Book is actually 22 beautiful, evocative vignettes that capture the sights and sounds of summer. (Keep this one in your back pocket for grey winter days.)
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
This lyrical, heart-breaking novel takes place over twelve days in August in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi; a timeframe that becomes even more intensely loaded when you realize that the hurricane that’s gathering strength over the Gulf of Mexico is Katrina. Esch and her brothers do their best to prepare what they can, but — aside from each other — there isn’t much they can save.
Outline by Rachel Cusk
A woman goes to Athens to teach a summer course on writing. She is divorced and has children. That’s almost all we know about the narrator of Outline, at least in terms of hard facts. Yet through the ten conversations that the narrator has with people she meets in Athens — notably people who are much more open about spilling the details of their lives —it becomes clear how much you can learn about someone by listening between the lines.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Asked to name a scene from The Great Gatsby, most people probably think of Nick staring at the green light at the end of the dock. But the scene that’s always stuck with me is the impromptu party that the Buchanans throw at the Plaza Hotel. Fitzgerald uses summer to perfect effect here: its claustrophobic, sticky heat, an atmosphere that’s uncomfortable and stifling in every sense of the words. In fact the whole plot of Gatsby mirrors the summer. The tension mounts with the heat, and the final denouement comes with the first chill of fall.
Nemesis by Philip Roth
Nemesis explores the effects of a polio epidemic on a closely knit Newark community during the summer of 1944. By setting his novel in a season that should be the most fun and carefree for children, Roth manages to heighten the already dark realities of polio for the children it struck: sickness, lifelong paralysis, and even death.
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
In the summer of 1876, San Francisco was suffering from both a smallpox epidemic and a record-breaking heat wave. This hot, intense atmosphere is the backdrop to the story of Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer who is trying to solve her friend’s murder in a rough-and-tumble city that in many ways was still a part of the Wild West.