Day 885: The Last Summer of the Camperdowns

Cover for The Last Summer of the CamperdownsHi, all, I just wanted to tell you before I get started that I began a new project, attempting to read all of the Man Booker Prize shortlisted books since 2010. See my new Man Booker Prize Project page for more information, and join me if you want to.

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The Last Summer of the Camperdowns is one of those books that I made a note I’d like to read some time ago, but by the time I got to it, could not remember what it was about. When that happens, I don’t read the cover. I just plunge in. I was surprised to find myself reading a sort of modern gothic novel.

Riddle Camperdown is a 12-year-old girl spending the summer at her family’s dune-side house on Cape Cod in 1972. Her name says a lot about the eccentricity of her family, for she is named after Jimmy Riddle Hoffa (yes, that one), and her father sometimes calls her Jimmy. “Camp” Camperdown is a labor organizer, composer, and politician, a noisy brash, boisterous, charismatic true believer. His wife, Greer, seems a mismatch for him. She is a cool, chic ex-movie star with an acid tongue. Riddle, who adores her father, thinks her mother only cares about money and status.

Another of the couple’s regular arguments starts up when they learn Michael Devlin is returning to the area. Michael is a rich, privileged man who used to be Camp’s best friend, but an incident during World War II drove them apart. Riddle is also fascinated to learn that Michael was engaged to Greer and stood her up at the altar.

Riddle and Greer are avid riders, so when that afternoon they go over to see Greer’s friend Gin, Riddle wanders off to the yellow barn to see a mare with a foal. When she is in the barn, something horrible happens, something she doesn’t see but only hears. She thinks she hears someone or something being chased through the barn and then dragged back to the tack room. She is terrified, but just as she is getting the nerve to open the tack room door, Gin’s employee Gula comes out.

Riddle is already terrified of Gula, so she pretends she hasn’t heard anything. Inexplicably, though, she is too terrified to tell her parents.

Soon, they learn that Michael Devlin’s youngest son Charlie has disappeared. It doesn’t take long for Riddle to guess it was Charlie she heard in the barn. That night, the barn burns down with several horses in it.

As Riddle is repeatedly terrorized by Gula, her parents’ marriage seems more and more fraught. Michael Devlin begins threatening Camp’s political campaign with a tell-all book, and Camp fears what he sees as his wife’s attachment to Devlin. In the meantime, Riddle falls in love with Michael Devlin’s oldest son, Harry.

This novel is quite suspenseful, with a plot that is far more complex than it first seems. If there were two small things I didn’t quite buy, one was the extremeness of the Camperdowns’ arguments at first. The other was how long it took Riddle to tell the truth, considering how Gula was threatening her, even going into her room and leaving things. Although ultimately Riddle was also hiding the fact that she hadn’t told the truth right away, I would think she would be too scared not to tell.

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Day 247: That Old Cape Magic

Cover for That Old Cape MagicI was so excited by discovering Empire Falls earlier this year that I went right out and bought a more recent book by Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic. This novel observes the thoughts of Jack Griffin as his marriage implodes and again a year later as he tries to make amends.

Griffin is obsessed with not becoming his parents, a couple of academic snobs who have spent their lifetimes criticizing everything, willfully ruining other people’s possessions, and making enemies in their Midwest university departments. Yet he has given up a successful screen-writing career to teach at a New England college that his parents always aspired to, and bought an old, charming house. These decisions make him feel like he is living the lives they wanted.

As Griffin carts around his father’s ashes on the way to a wedding on Cape Cod, he behaves spitefully to his wife Joy, whom he blames for the changes in his life. In his drives around the Cape, where he and his family spent all their summers, he thinks about his past, his parents, and his marriage.

In the second part of the novel, he returns to the Cape for his daughter’s wedding with his father’s ashes still in the car, along with his mother’s. He has come with a date but his real desire is to win back his wife.

I think several things hampered me from enjoying this novel as much as I did the other. First, Griffin isn’t very likeable and his parents seem repellant, although we have some evidence that his memories may not all be accurate. One of the difficulties in Griffin’s marriage is his dislike of Joy’s family, but Joy’s family is almost stereotypically drawn as wacky, loud, and obnoxious, so it’s hard to appreciate why Joy cares for them as much as she does. Aside from being uncaring about his wife’s family and her needs, Griffin seems to be clueless about many things in his own life. Generally, since I usually need to relate to at least one character and only Griffin is fully realized, I found the novel a little unsatisfying.