The Summer Book You Need to Read to Get You Through the Winter
Deborah Shapiro’s "The Summer Demands" packs all of the energy of youth into a complicated love triangle
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Summer is a strange, delirious season. Thanks to an emotional holdover from our school years, it feels like a three-month vacation from our ordinary, everyday selves. The heat slows time to a slog. Moments tick by yet each feels infinite, containing a whole universe within it. The damp makes you acutely aware of your body; you make decisions you might not, if you weren’t addled by the humidity. When you are awoken from your haze by autumn, you may find yourself changed.
This may all sound rather theoretical, from our position fully in the depths of winter. But winter is just as important as summer in making sense of the course of our lives. The quiet of winter offers the chance for reflection, for looking back on warmer days and taking stock of the course we’ve set upon. If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity, we find may ourselves stumbling through life, repeating the same mistakes, failing to uncover our deepest values and motivations. Only by knowing what we value can we learn to protect it.
One way to learn what we value is to look closely at a time when other desires or temptations led us astray, in errant directions. That is the premise of Deborah Shapiro’s most recent novel, The Summer Demands, which follows the protagonist, Emily, as she reflects on one languid summer spent on the grounds of a remote children’s camp that used to belong to her aunt, but which has since gone out of business. Emily and her husband David’s plan to reopen the camp as an upscale resort has foundered on lack of money and motivation. That failure, coupled with Emily’s recent, devastating miscarriage, grinds the flow of her life to a halt.
The sticky stasis of summer mirrors Emily’s stagnation in life. She spends her days wandering the grounds of the camp, floating in its lake, wondering what her future holds. Her sense of self-worth is profoundly in question—a common malaise among childless middle-aged women, whose social value has largely been defined in terms of reproduction.
“Who were you, in a way, when the wanting was gone?” she asks, finding herself, as many of us do at one time to another, bereft of motivation. She feels a “creeping sense of not catching on. Of being aware there was something to catch on to and missing it.”
This is a winter feeling, both literally—we want to stay home, doing nothing but burrowing under blankets—and figuratively. In the winter of life it’s hard to rekindle the urgent yearnings of youth, the belief that we will be able to achieve fulfillment only by meeting those desires. I, like Emily, don’t have kids, though unlike her, that’s by choice. I’ve gotten what I wanted—a fairly peaceable relationship with a loving partner, the seeds of a fulfilling career—so what is there left to yearn for? When I find myself reflecting on past summers, what I miss is the hot-headed desire of those days. Yes, I’m now old(ish) and married, but I wasn’t always. In fact, until relatively recently, quite the opposite: drawn in many different directions, personally and professionally; impulsive; in love with three different people within the span of a week. But those who met me today would be surprised to learn these things, based on the stolid constancy of my present life. How, I wonder, do I assimilate my aching past into my more placid present?
For Emily, the answer to this wintry stagnation arrives in the form of Stella, the college-aged girl squatting in one of the camp’s empty cabins. Stella’s graceful youth and unselfconscious free spirit captivate Emily, and the two strike up a powerful intimacy from day one—which, as the summer goes on, edges closer and closer to real infringement upon Emily’s marriage. They swim together; they don’t bother to hide watching each other naked; they speak of their romantic pasts and presents with unusual candor. When a storm drives Stella into the main house, where Emily and her husband live, she ends up meeting David as well, and a complex triangle of desire takes shape between the three: desire, as Emily says, “like shards of a mirror reflecting and refracting in endless combinations.” One momentous night, Emily and Stella share a clandestine, brief yet ardent kiss, which does not repeat itself, and stands as Emily’s one concrete infidelity.
It’s notable that the spark of Emily’s passion reignites in the form of a close female friendship that crosses over into the romantic, as friendships between women are wont to do. If there is space for a reemergence of intimacy that can respect the boundaries of heterosexual marriage (which, to be clear, Emily and Stella’s friendship does not), it may well inhere in the particular intensity of these friendships. They can serve as an outlet for the “crush” energy that married people otherwise don’t get to indulge. I have found it more, not less, important to cultivate these relationships in the setting of marriage, which can threaten to eclipse other connections that are equally vital and nourishing. The lack of non-romantic companionship in Emily’s life is striking, though not unbelievable. One wonders how she would have fared in an alternate story, where she had a stable of age-appropriate, world-wise peers to support her through her midlife malady, instead of an ephemeral sprite who vanishes as quickly as she appeared.
But the salient aspect of summer is that it ends. After her fever for Stella cools, David reminds Emily that there are “actual, lasting consequences” to people’s actions. As the novel nears its end, it becomes evident that the marriage, rather than the affair (if it can even be called that), is the book’s true subject—the aspect of Emily’s life she values deeply. We learn that David and Emily do move on from the Stella episode, in a farewell tableau that confirms the overriding concerns of the novel: family, sustained intimacy, not the kind that floats directionless in a lake, but which is accreted over years and anchors into a subterranean foundation. When I finished reading, I swelled with hope for, of all things, the institution of marriage, or perhaps what it represents: constancy, devotion, other-directedness. Though summer’s lust—not just for sex, but for novelty, risk, thrill—captivates our attention in the heat of the moment, it loses much of its shine once it belongs to the past, once we’re able to sit still and assess whether it served our long-term goals and beliefs. We need not discount that yearning, but rather recognize its proper place: as an integral part of who we are, a mental touchstone, even, but one that must be shaped into a form that fits with how we’ve chosen to structure our lives.
Indeed, although the action of the novel is inflected with the moods and scents of summer, its tone is essentially wistful, clearly the product of measured reflection on past events; if summer and youth are a time of striving and winter is a time of rest, you might say this is autumnal. Emily comes to see that she didn’t long for Stella because of her romantic appeal, precisely, but because she briefly rekindled the longing of Emily’s youth, and allowed Emily to meet that longing—until she went too far. Emily forgives Stella her thoughtless interference in the lives of others because she understands that Stella is young, and that the happenings of one’s youth can only be parsed in recollection, just as that summer can only be explained in a later season.
That is to say: if the split-second impulsiveness which summer draws out—the affair, the risk, the adventure—takes place in a moment of heated abandon, the project of the novel is to place that moment in time, to make sense of it in the wider context of the characters’ lives. This is the activity of our wintry selves, which have retreated inward, away from the temptations of sun and skin, toward the comforts of home, the known, the continuous and stable. In other words, the main action of our lives, meaning-making, happens after and apart from the events that generate meaning. One of those contemplative activities that accelerates and molds that meaning-making, is, naturally, reading.
In this way, novels like The Summer Demands make sense of two kinds of times or moods: the ardency of youthful desire, which can lead us even to the point of betrayal, and the mature, staid instinct to take stock. Neither is right or wrong; rather, they exist in balance, and accrue meaning in relationship to one another, just like the seasons themselves. Infatuation with someone other than one’s partner only takes on a frisson of transgression in the context of the marriage it violates; a marriage consists of a daily decision not to step beyond its bounds, to find value and peace in directing the will towards building a life with someone. We never stop wanting, but we do learn what wanting should be met.
To define a rule, we must study its exceptions. To know ourselves, we must hold an eyeglass to the occasions of which we are least proud, to layer meaning onto them, and thus move toward the versions of ourselves we most wish to embody. We read about our summer selves not to escape the dreariness of winter, but to recall the virtues of cold, of stability, and of space to reflect on the times we succumbed to the seduction of heat.