Summer of '69
This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of that momentous other summer – the one that took place in 1969. Within the space of four months, a man would walk on the moon, Woodstock would take place, Ted Kennedy’s car would plunge into the waters of Chappaquiddick, and the Vietnam War would reach its fraught peak. Soon the Manson murders and Altamont will collide and kill off an entire generation’s dream of a peaceful, equable utopia.
Through the eyes of the four Foley-Levin siblings, Elin Hilderbrand fumblingly explores this era of change and tumult in her novel, Summer of ’69. Each of them has their own troubled reasons for avoiding the habitually cozy family nest in that banner year – and each of them will go through intense change over the summer in their own way.
Usually, the upper-middle-class Foley-Levins gather at their grandmother Exalta Nicols’ historic home in downtown Nantucket for the summer, but this year they’re spread out across the world and only thirteen-year-old Jessie accompanies her worried mother Kate to her antisemitic and snobby grandmother’s home while her father stays at home in Brookline to work during the week.
Jessie has no idea how to cope with her loneliness; far from her peer group and stuck with her aging grandmother and unable to fit into the country club set, she starts to steal. She experiences sexual harassment at the hands of her tennis instructor and falls in first love with a boy named Pick whose mother has abandoned him for the hippie life and whose grandfather, Bill, has military connections that Kate relies upon for word of her brother, Richard.
Each of the other siblings check in in their own way. Educated Blair, married to a clinically depressed MIT professor, runs home to Nantucket when she learns of her husband’s apparent infidelity. Yearning for the Harvard admission that waits for her – her husband’s brother, Joey – pregnant Blair tries to figure out which brother she loves while waiting for her twins to be delivered. College-attending Katherine – Kirby – is in constant rebellion against her parents and takes a job on Martha’s Vineyard as a desk clerk at a motel, trying to live independently from her family while participating in the burgeoning civil rights movement. She falls in love with the upper-crust Darren but sleeps with other men as she confronts her own prejudices and assumptions about his blackness and his parent’s disapproval of their interactions. And nineteen-year-old Richard – known as Tiger and the only boy in the family – has been deployed to Vietnam as an infantry soldier, his letters to Jessie his only lifeline to the world back home. As summer marches on for the Foley-Levines, each must confront the change before them and carve out new worlds for themselves.
Summer of 69’s biggest problem is the quality of its writing and it’s clunky, obvious plotting. The storytelling is pedestrian and info-dumpy; I could have gone a full grade higher had I not felt like the author was telling instead of showing me everything in large, heavy-handed swipes. Though the book is billed as the story of four siblings, we get a lot of Kate’s PoV, much of which didn’t really feel necessary to the story (nor does the sudden appearance of soapy, quasi incest, which sneaks into the novel near the end like a thief through the back door). All of Tiger’s PoV is delivered through letters read by Jessie, which are all conveniently graphic and brutally honest. This robs his sections of the novel of any urgency and immediacy, and I would’ve rather we’d actually taken a trip TO Vietnam and seen the world through his eyes in first person as we do with his siblings.
But the book definitely has its virtues. The best and most accessible chapters are from italics-spouting Jessie, who is young and naïve and feels like a real person. Her correspondence with Tiger would’ve made for a fine one-act play or YA novel. She grows up in a realistic fashion throughout the novel. Everything about her chapters is great and why this isn’t a full-out D-level read.
Sometimes the author’s love of showing and not telling works – specifically when we’re in Jessie’s wide-eyed point of view – but the older kids don’t feel like real people. Kirby feels like a wide-eyed stereotype of a Nice White Lady, experiencing everything the sixties stereotypically had to offer (Drugs! Casual sex! Rock and Roll! Back-alley abortions!). That she, after years of marching and activism, is STUNNED that educated rich black people exist is mindboggling; that she manages to be arrested during an anti-Nixon protest by a cop who quotes Buffalo Springfield at her while letting her go, followed by their extended extramarital affair is eye-rollingly ridiculous.
Blair’s plotline is an attempt at trying to show a frustrated housewife’s attempt at personal growth, but ends with a hammy sitcom idiot plot twist that refuses to work. Yet I liked parts of Angus’ character and found him compelling.
Summer of ‘69’s promotional blurb intrigued me. There have been many modern novels written about that summer, but not many written from a heavily feminine point of view. But sadly, between its heavy reliance on clichés and the utter silliness of Blair’s plot, the book didn’t live up to its potential.