Thursday, February 11, 2010
In Which Trai Reviews 'The Distant Summer'
The Book: The Distant Summer
The Author: Sarah Patterson
How I Found It: This was another recommendation I received of a forties-era romantic story.
The Review: "See what I mean? Find someone with a future, Kate, and forget me. I'm already dead."
Katherine Hamilton is a British girl living in the midst of World War II. Every night, the RAF boys go on missions, air raids, and aren't guaranteed to come back. Katherine is just sixteen and can't fully understand the horrors of the war and the sheer amount of death that these young men experience.
While looking for her father, the pastor, Kathie discovers someone playing the church organ. At first glance, he appears to be a young man, but when he turns to face her, his face is older than his years. His name is Johnny Stewart, and he is a rear gunner for the RAF-- a position that means he will almost certainly die before his third tour, in progress, is over.
Despite herself, Kathie finds herself liking Johnny, who nicknames her Kate and invites her to a dance. It is at this dance that Kathie becomes acquainted with some of Johnny's friends-- particularly Richie, a sweet, Creole American member of the RAF who has known Johnny for some time.
At some points in their growing relationship, Kathie is baffled by Johnny's behavior. Why is he so cavalier about life and death? How are the other members of the RAF so casual about something so horrible? Will Johnny ever stop his thrill-seeking and settle into normal life, or will his luck run out just as it has for many of the other boys?
As Kathie becomes increasingly frustrated with Johnny's attitude, it is Richie who gets her to realize the full extent of what Johnny has been through-- experiences that have scarred him for life. As the summer wears on and Kathie becomes involved on the homefront, her thoughts become increasingly consumed with the fear that one day, Johnny may not come back alive.
This book is from the 1970s and is a really short story-- my copy is only 159 pages and I read the entire thing today. That being said, the author is a bit of a mystery-- the only thing I've been able to glean is that her father is a famous British novelist named Jack Higgins, and that she wrote this book when she was 16. Apparently, there haven't been any others.
I liked the book a lot for what it was, but it wasn't without its faults. Even with those, though, it was a really nice story, if a very derivative one, and I was impressed with the sheer amount of research about flying and such that went into this book. For a book written by a sixteen-year-old, it's pretty impressive that she knew as many details as she did.
The book's story is simplistic, but it was fairly well done. The plot is a cookie-cutter, really-- right down to Kathie being oblivious that Richie has feelings for her until something brings it to her attention, and right down to the fact that in the end, someone does die. All of this was pretty straightforward and easy to figure out, but I enjoyed the ride. The book definitely made me misty-eyed twice-- I did care about the character that died. The story was nicely paced and well-written, so that and the attention to detail were definitely the strengths.
The weaknesses: The characters were a little flat, in my opinion. Beyond the fact that Johnny is very, very lucky and a bit of an early adrenaline junkie, and the fact that Kathie is in love with him, they didn't really have any other defining qualities besides that. Richie was the only one who seemed vibrant enough as a character. I'm wondering if Kathie's characterization was vague on purpose-- if it was one of those situations where Patterson wanted the reader to, in effect, be Kathie. If that was the case, I can sort of forgive it.
With Johnny, though, I would've liked to see him have more depth than he did. When I think about it, he reminds me of Jeremy Renner's character in The Hurt Locker, which I saw very recently. In the film, Renner keeps returning to war because, as the epigraph puts it, "war is a drug." This was definitely the type of character that Johnny was made out to be, and he came off just as Renner's character did in The Hurt Locker-- in the end, Kathie probably won't ever understand him fully, and nor do we truly understand Renner at the end of the film. This could be another possible explanation for why Johnny didn't have much depth; maybe he wasn't meant to, since Kathie doesn't understand him until very late in the game.
I don't think the complaints of Kathie being selfish were all that justified-- yes, she was thinking only of herself at some points, but she was only a teenager and I think that's to be expected. In her situation, I'd be dead terrified if someone I loved was going off every night to potentially meet his death. Recently, with my whole devotion to the wartime romance thing, I've been having a really hard time bringing myself to understand the heroes in these things. I'll probably go more into that when I get to review the film of Dear John, which is also where I'll talk more about The Hurt Locker.
Overall, the strengths of the book were the emotional depth and the very realistic feel to it. The whole story felt very contemporary, and in my head, I found myself relating it to more modern stories. One of the best parts of the book, in my opinion, was a section where Johnny, a comrade, and Kathie go to visit the wife of a fallen company member. The wife is fairly angered by their presence, telling them, "Can't you see your presence can only do one thing? Remind me that you are alive and he is dead?" She then wishes Kathie luck, seeing that Kathie is in love with Johnny. This exchange reminded me of another recent drama, The Messenger, which was about two soldiers tasked with next-of-kin notification. The scene in the book made me wonder how much harder those visits make it on the remaining family, and it was definitely a powerful exchange. I could actually picture this book as a movie-- it has a surprising amount of action, and with certain selective changes to old-hat portions of the story and a little beefing up of the characters, it would make a good period drama.
This book was a very good little story. While it still had a very contemporary feel and the emotions it elicited were very real, I felt as though it could have been somewhat longer, a little less reliant on old tropes, and had a little more characterization. All in all, however, it was almost exactly what I was looking for in a forties-era romance, and it was definitely an enjoyable way to spend a few hours. Recommended to fans of the era in fiction.