The Fourth Summer
As kids, Caitlin McGraw and Seth Street used to meet in North Carolina in the summers, where he taught her to skateboard and became her first love. Then the Olympics pulled Seth away to snowboarding glory, and Caitlin moved on as a graphic designer. Both are surprised to realize they are still legally residents in North Carolina, a fact they discover when they’re summoned for, and then required to serve on, a local jury. An unexpected jury sequestration later, and Caitlin and Seth are thrown together indefinitely – except jury rules mean they can’t actually be together at all. While the setting in this book is fantastic, I wanted more from the romance.
This is by far the best depiction of the personalities on a jury since 12 Angry Men, and frankly, since it’s more diverse, I’d say it’s better. The level of detail in this is so meticulous that if it were any author but Seidel, with her great gift for researching and developing settings, I’d assume the story was autobiographical. I don’t know if what happens in the story is legally possible, but it’s absolutely fascinating. A selection process that’s half Franz Kafka and half Joseph Keller, a claustrophobic sequestration, mind-numbingly monotonous testimony, disorienting re-entry into real life – everything is credible, and both smoothly and convincingly conveyed.
In a book with this many characters, it would be easy to leave the supporting cast as flat backgrounders, but Seidel deftly rounds them out. I especially liked Sally, the deputy responsible for the jurors, and an emotionally-fragile and impoverished juror named Yvette. The writing is excellent, occasionally even laugh-out-loud funny. Boxes are delivered to the sequestered jury, and “if Caitlin had both her mother and her grandmother packing for her, she might be able to colonize Mars with what they had sent.”
So what holds this book back? Unfortunately, it’s the romance. Caitlin and Seth are at the core of the story, but I honestly wasn’t that invested in their relationship. They don’t have strong sexual chemistry, which is fine – not all books have to be hot, even ones with early sex scenes – except I didn’t think they had anything else either, like friendship or teamwork. Seth is convincingly written as the embodiment of a snowboarder stereotype, a good-time man-child generally oblivious to the needs and feelings of other people, and that’s not what I’m looking for in a hero. He grows in the course of the novel, but it wasn’t far enough or soon enough for me to find him appealing, and the fact that Caitlin helps him change gave their relationship an unsexy maternal vibe.
Kathleen Gilles Seidel is a great writer, and this is a great novel. What it isn’t, unfortunately, is a great love story. But I still recommend it for anyone looking for an engrossing read about a group of strangers doing their best to get along in close quarters and find meaning in a civic responsibility when they seem to be the only ones in the system who care.