Hi, 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.