Every Year I Tell Myself This Summer Will Be the Best One Yet
Books by Andrea Abreau and Elena Ferrante capture a glimpse of my childhood summer glory
For me, summer is a complicated season. As a perpetual student, summers have always been a release from the confines of a busy semester. In the thick of papers to grade, my own dissertation to write, assignments piling up, I often think that if I just make it to summer, I will be fine. Summer becomes an empty space, ripe to fill with my secret plans and little dreams. I spend all winter dreaming of it: this summer will be the best one of my entire life.
But when it comes around, summer depresses me a bit. It goes too quickly and also too slow. I’m lazy, I’m bored, sometimes it is too hot. Often, the empty space from intense scheduling and busyness is too much for me; I spin out a bit. I get nostalgic for the summers of my childhood, before I grew up and started packing my weekends with hiking and day-tripping and doing just a tiny bit more work. I used to read, book after book, draped on a couch or in bed, lost in another world. I had no plans and no direction, only desires that could easily be fulfilled at the library or the ice cream truck or a quick walk down to Lake Michigan. These days, my summers are too busy and too empty. I find it hard to finish more than one book a week—a slow pace for someone working towards their PhD in English. I try to balance work and reading and trips and also some kind of relaxing, but I never get it quite right.
The only place I can reliably read and relax is the beach. I go as often as possible—almost weekly, if I have my way—and when I can’t, I try to make it to the public pool. I love to be in or by water, and I do my best reading like that. Yet the desire to relax—to just get to the beach—can be so intensely distracting, even stressful. Even if my plan for the day doesn’t include an excursion to the beach, if the day turns nice, I wonder if I should go. If I had planned better, could I have made it work?
It’s silly, yes, but for me it feels like summer is a limited resource, one I want to optimize. I hold onto the season tightly: every single day feels precious. Soon, my time will not be my own. Soon, the sun will set earlier and the days will be cold. Soon, this all will end. I do this largely because I want to remember my summers vividly, and with no regret. I want every summer to be the best summer of my life: the most productive, the most full, the most relaxing, the most memorable. In some ways, I’m chasing the summers of my girlhood—the ones that felt wide open and endless, full of perfect days.
Wanting a perfect summer is an immature desire, one from my childhood, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to find this state of mind articulated in Andrea Abreu’s novel Dogs of Summer, recently translated from Spanish into English by Julia Sanches. After all, Dogs of Summer follows two young girls, nearly inseparable best friends, through the summer of 2005. Our narrator is only known to us as Shit, a nickname given to her by her best friend Isora. Through one summer, they grow up together, coming of age in the early days of the internet and chat rooms (“mésinye”). Together they negotiate what they should do all day—a question that haunts me too, still.
When Dogs of Summer came out, it was almost immediately compared to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, specifically My Brilliant Friend. Like My Brilliant Friend, which centered on the friendship between Elena (Lenú) and Lila, Dogs of Summer follows Shit and Isora’s girlhood in a working-class neighborhood—not in Naples, but Tenerife. Both Ferrante and Abreu are concerned with the undercurrents of a close friendship between girls: there is jealousy, respect, fear, and even erotic love simmering below for Lila and Lenú, for Isora and Shit. For Lenú, narrator of My Brilliant Friend and the rest of the Neapolitan quartet, Lila’s power and brilliance and beauty has a hold over her. It’s the same for Shit, who is dazzled by Isora and intensely loyal to her. They do everything together: exploring the neighborhood, going to the bathroom, walking each other home.
I don’t have a best friend like that, and I never really have. Both My Brilliant Friend and Dogs of Summer illuminate how my feelings about summer are the feelings of girlhood: of a season that feels too short, bookended by school, a limited resource. All summer, Isora and Shit dream of going to the beach—like me, the beach serves as a cure for their summer malaise. Like Lila and Lenú in My Brilliant Friend, who long to go to the sea as well, the impossibility of making it to the beach is its own pleasure. It becomes its own little heaven. For both sets of girls, the trek to the coast is time-consuming—they must hitch a ride, must find a way there—and a pursuit for people far richer than they are. Imagine, Isora says to Shit, “‘magine being born near the beach.”
I am like this, too. A beach obsessive. The first summer that I lived in Boston, my first summer living in proximity to the ocean, I always wanted to go to the beach. My desire consumed me: all I wanted was to be at the beach, in water, far away from my library job and tiny apartment without an A/C unit. It felt like it was 90 all the time, and I was melting. I had no car or money, few friends, and no way to the beach. I would spend my lunch break at the library scrolling through a list of Boston’s best 100 beaches. You could see which ones were accessible by public transit, which were romantic or family-friendly or had cheap parking. I had the names of beaches, foreign to me, memorized. Nauset Beach. Head of the Meadow. Wingaersheek. Buzzards Bay. Dionis. Merely thinking about going to the beach was pleasurable for me, just like for Shit. The night before an attempted trip down to the sea, she gets “into bed early just so I could lie there and think about the beach,” turning her memories of swimming over and over in her mind, polishing them like shells.
For the girls, as for me, the beach acts as a horizon for desire, a sense of contrast. The depressing, hot expanse of summer finds its cooling match there. Shit thinks, “It was June and classes had only ended a day ago, but I was already dead tired and sad like low clouds hanging over my head. It didn’t feel like summer.” Shit’s parents go to work, her father in construction and her mother cleaning vacation homes, and Shit is left thinking that “It was June and I was sad. It was June and now I was scared too.” Summer can be sad. We do what we can to make it bearable.
That summer, my first summer in Boston, I only went to the beach once. Alone. I took the commuter rail to Manchester-by-the-Sea and walked almost twenty minutes, paying $7 to walk onto the beach. It was beautiful. I sat there alone, reading, only going in the water when I was hot enough to swim. I eavesdropped on other people’s conversations, and ate my food, and wondered when I should go home. I looked around and realized I was the only person alone on the beach—it was full of families and couples and groups of people. When I made it back to my apartment that night, I tried to remember if I’d spoken to anyone all day.
These days, it’s easy for me to get to the beach: I have many friends with cars who can be easily convinced to drive me. But it doesn’t change the feeling I have. What Dogs of Summer does best with this desire—this intense, childlike desire Shit and Isora and Lila and Lenú and I have, to make it to the beach—is remind us that danger simmers below the surface of our summers. It gets too hot. A fuse blows and my A/C is out. There is a drought in Massachusetts. This is unsustainable. In Dogs of Summer, in Tenerife in 2005, this latency is embodied in the volcano that the girls live on. Shit thinks, of the “vulcano” only visible on clear days, that “it almost never happened, but everyone knew that behind the clouds lived a giant who was 3,718 meters tall and could set fire to all of us if he wanted.” In Somerville, Massachusetts in 2022, the danger of summer is in heat waves and the rising ocean itself. I look at a climate-ready map and joke that my apartment now will be beach-front in twenty years.
Summer is a limited resource. The summers of my childhood are gone: of reading on cool couches, of chilly air on Lake Michigan, of endless beach days in the Outer Banks. These days, I worry about how many summers of beach and pool and relatively pleasing air temperature I have left, that we have left. Perhaps this is the best thing that longing for the beach, longing for an elsewhere where you might be able to relax, gives us: an appreciation for what we have, on the very cusp of losing it.