The overwhelming image I get when trying to describe The Summer We Got Free is the moments just before a summer thunderstorm: the charged anticipation, the humid heat, the claustrophobia of it. It also reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in that this is a story about a family and a house haunted by their past. The story alternates between the family’s present, where they are still dealing with the fall out from a tragedy that happened decades earlier, and the past just preceding the tragedy.
This alternating structure really works in maintaining tension. Even though it’s mostly focused on the internal lives of the characters, I found myself eagerly turning the pages to discover what exactly happened to shatter this family. You get just enough information to not be frustrated, but you have to hang on all the way to the end to really understand the whole picture.
I also loved the main character, Ava. As a child, she was passionate, vibrant, and unrestrainable. Her adult self is closed off, dulled, and practical. Part of the journey of The Summer We Got Free is Ava’s reconnecting with her childhood self, and trying to find a way to reclaim personality traits that she had long buried.
The only complaint I had with this book was that I found the male characters unsympathetic and a bit flat in comparison with all the other major characters, but even that I feel like was resolved to some extent by the end. This was a five star read for me and one that I intend to reread multiple times in the future. It will take its place on my bookshelf next to The Color Purple for a story that is cutting and brutally honest about the state of the world, but inspirational in spite of that–or, more accurately, because it acknowledges that and find joy and hope regardless of that.
I’ll leave you with the first paragraph, which should convince you to pick it up if nothing else does.
Ava did not remember the taste of butter. It had been seventeen years since she had last moaned at the melt of hot-buttered cornbread on her tongue. She was not bothered in the least by it, because she did not remember that she did not remember. At breakfast, when she dropped a square of butter on grits, or on yams at dinner, and laid a spoonful of either on her tongue, she believed what she tasted was butter. She did not know that she was only tasting milkfat and salt, the things that make up butter, which, of course, is not the same thing. She certainly did not know that the taste of butter was a thing that had once made her moan. Ava did not remember what it was to moan