Antalek, Robin. The Summer We Fell Apart. William Morrow, 2010. ISBN 978-0061782169 384 pp. $
As the novel opens, the father, a playwright, has moved out and is galavanting about Europe with his mistress; Finn has just returned home from Europe after confronting his father, about the mistress; Kate is in Florence, teaching; Amy is fascinated and frustrated with the lovely Miriam, an aquaintence of her father’s, who has been sent to live with the family as an exchange student, and George, Amy’s close confident, may or may not be coming out. Marilyn, the mother, is a stage actress who wears a multitude of knotted scarves on her head, coming and going at all hours and leaving the children much to their own devices.
Only the initial chapter focuses on the teen years of the siblings. Subsequent chapters, each focusing on one character, are chronological, but leap forward years. Amy, George, Finn and Kate are only moderately successful at not repeating the mistakes of their theatrical, alcohol parents Richard & Marilyn. Themes of family secrets, alcoholism, love, self-destruction/creation, and demolition/construction tie episodic events together.
The writing is excellent; chapters have wonderful transitions, each one tying back to a previous, to anchor the reader in spite of jumps made in time (each chapter is set several years apart). Cultural allusions are easy touchstones–Holden Caulfield and horror movies that have video game spinoffs are very comprehensible.
Antalek makes the reader strongly empathize with her characters: George’s negotiation of a relationship with the father of a student he advises at his prep school is palpable for non-parents; Finn’s painful struggle with addiction tugs on the heartstrings; Kate’s workoholic personality and need for control coupled with her despair and desire are realistic; Amy’s free spirit is refreshing and believable.
This is a very finely crafted novel of family dysfunction with appeal for fans of Joyce Carol Oates. The lemon tree on the cover is an appropriate metaphor for the theme of the book: sometimes, what appears fresh and vibrant is rotten at the core, and you have to cut straight to the diseased parts and move on from there if you want to revitalize.