Tag Archives: Summer reading

The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein: An endearing bit of eccentricity

The Sunlit NightI’m a sucker for anything Scandi these days – I blame BBC4 – which is why I was attracted to Rebecca Dinerstein’s idiosyncratic first novel. I wasn’t at all sure about it at first – I thought it might be a little too whimsical and that cover is enough to send me scrabbling for something else to read – but it turned out to be an enjoyable piece of entertainment which steers well clear of sentimentality. Set in New York and on a Norwegian island in the far north on the edge of the Arctic Circle, it’s about Frances and Yasha, brought together in the most unlikely circumstances.

The novel begins with twenty-two-year-old Frances thrown into a quandary by her breakup with the boyfriend she thought she’d be spending the summer with in Japan. Having turned down her place at the Leknes Artists’ Colony, apprenticed to an artist who only paints in yellow, she’s not at all sure that they’ll reconsider her. Luckily, there’s still a vacancy. Relieved to escape her parents’ tiny apartment and their constant carping, she takes herself off to Norway where it soon becomes apparent that the Artists’ Colony is a colony of one. Meanwhile seventeen-year-old Yasha works in his father’s New York bakery where they’ve been since leaving Moscow ten years ago, wishing for a girlfriend and serving the guitar-toting man they’ve christened Dostoevsky every Friday, until his father decides to return to Moscow to look for his wife who failed to join them despite her first-class ticket. These two are clearly destined to meet and so they do, far away from home in a Viking Museum at the ‘top of the world’.

The Sunlit Night is neatly packaged for the holiday reading market but it’s a little more off the wall than your usual run-of-the-mill summer romance. Dinerstein has a nice line in eccentric humour and her characters are endearingly awkward at times. Her descriptions of the Nordic midsummer are strikingly vivid – they made me want to go there although perhaps the enjoyment is best kept vicarious: the prospect of  a day lasting three weeks is enough to make anyone bedeviled by poor sleep break down and weep. Dinerstein chose to spend a year-long writing fellowship in the Lofoten archipelago where her novel is set. Clearly, she has memories of ‘brown cheese’, and I’m not sure they’re good ones: it comes up a lot. Altogether an enjoyable read, then – just the ticket if you’re in the mood for a quirky bit of escapism.

The Vacationers: An intelligent beach read

Cover imageAt first glance The Vacationers didn’t appeal – beach reads aren’t my kind of thing – but it’s published by Picador (one of my favourite imprints), Naomi at The Writes of Women tweeted approvingly about it and annethology also seemed keen so I quit prevaricating and started reading. It seems they were right: Emma Straub’s novel is a very smart piece of commercial fiction – entertaining, peopled with entirely believable characters and, best of all, written with a sharp wit and acute observation.

Jim and Franny are scrambling to finish their packing before racing off to the airport with their daughter Sylvia. They’re flying to Mallorca for a two-week holiday in the stone villa they’ve rented just far enough from the coast to lift them up above the hoi-polloi. It’s soon clear that they’re taking rather more baggage than the cases they’re packing – Jim has lost his job after an affair with an intern, Franny can hardly contain her fury and Sylvia is preoccupied by the Facebook photos of her drunkenly snogging her classmates. When they arrive at the villa they’re jet-lagged and fractious. Into this walks their son Bobby; Carmen, the girlfriend for whom Franny can barely mask her contempt; Charles, her dearest friend and his husband Lawrence. There’s a great deal of angst, someone stomps off never to be seen again, people misbehave, someone gets punched, hopes are met and dashed – much like real life really – all served up with a slyly wicked humour. No one leaves unchanged.

The joy of this book is largely in its characters. Jim is suitably hangdog but having difficulty in banishing thoughts of his intern; Fran is a seething cauldron of resentment but determined that everyone will enjoy themselves; Sylvia picks away at her Facebook shame while nurturing hopes of her gorgeous Spanish tutor; Bobby and Carmen obsessively exercise; Charles frets about whether he can overcome his child-rearing anxieties while Lawrence can hardly contain his excitement when an email arrives from the adoption agency. Straub’s deft portrayals are a delight and her wit sharp as a tack. It’s an indulgent pleasure – an intelligent piece of fiction with enough bite to lift it far above the usual slick beach read.

Beautiful Ruins: a good old fashioned bit of escapism

Despite the rain outside and the woolly cardigan I’m desperate to abandon but can’t seem to shrug off, it’s almost June and the holiday reading season is upon us. I’ve spent the last few days alternating between She Left me the Gun, Emma Brockes’s superb but harrowing account of finding out about her mother’s South African past and her abusive grandfather, and Jess Walters’s quirky Beautiful Ruins which has offered some welcome light relief.

Cover imageSpanning fifty years, it opens in Italy in 1962 the year that the movie classic Cleopatra, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, was shot in Rome. Pasquale Tursi is trying to make a beach in the impossibly rocky cove his hotel overlooks while the beautiful Hollywood actress, Dee Moray, rests upstairs in her room. It’s a charming opening to a novel which draws you in as it skips from 60s Italy to present day Hollywood taking its readers up little narrative side alleys along the way.

Dee has been dispatched to Porto Vergogna, cruelly tricked by Michael Deane, Cleopatra’s publicity fixer, into thinking she has stomach cancer when she’s actually pregnant – it might be a little hard to suspend your disbelief at this point but, as with so many details in this clever novel, all becomes clear later. She’s waiting for her lover, a famous movie star, who never arrives, and the gentlemanly Pasquale decides that he must rescue her setting in train a series of events which remain unresolved for fifty years when he travels to Hollywood to track her down.

Each character in Beautiful Ruins has their own love story. Pasquale has left his beloved Amedea behind in Florence to care for his widowed mother; Dee is besotted with her famous movie star; Alvis Bender, who returns to Porto Vergogna to write his book every year, falls for Dee; Dee’s son, has written a love song about Lydia which touches the hearts of all who hear it; Claire, Michael Deane’s assistant, can’t decide whether or not to ditch her porn-addicted boyfriend – and the lists goes on. There is a good deal of gentle humour in Walters’s novel and Hollywood’s self obsession is nicely mocked. Occasionally the narrative’s many diversions seem a step too far – Alvis Bender’s one and only chapter, Shane, Pasquale’s accidental translator’s movie pitch – but all is satisfyingly tied in later in the story.

Billed by the publishers as ‘this summer’s ultimate beach read’ Beautiful Ruins is better than that: both amusing and absorbing it’s much more cleverly put together than the usual holiday reading romp. One to sit back and enjoy, come rain or shine.