Top Ten Summers in Fiction

Top Ten Summers in Fiction

It is a truth universally acknowledged that wherever there is a ‘best of’ list, there are also an infinite number of alternatives just waiting to prove that they are better. Recently, Naomi Frisby (who writes the excellent blog The Writes of Woman) shared a link on Twitter. It was from The Guardian, and featured Tim Lott’s top 10 summers in fiction.

To be honest, my first thought was, ‘Damn, he’s beaten me to it!’. Once I got my head out of my own navel, however, I noticed the rest of Naomi’s tweet: ‘Apparently no women write scenes set in summer…’ Well, two women do make it in for the last two slots on Tim’s list, although one of them – Tove Janssen – has been chosen for The Summer Book, which Tim admires but doesn’t love.

So, in the interests of counterbalance, here’s a list of astonishingly good books set in the summer, with eight women writers to the two men. Thank you to those who suggested titles via Twitter or joined in the thread on THE Bookclub on Facebook. I should say that I could have populated it almost entirely from the Prime Writers roll: Claire Fuller, Vanessa Lafaye, Louise Walters, SD Sykes, Beth Miller, Jo Bloom: the summer setting of their books is an integral part of each of their narratives, and they’re all excellent. Do go and check them out.

I’ll be reviewing some of these over the next week or so, focussing particularly on what makes a good coming-of-age novel and why the genre is so very suited to writing about summer. In the meantime, here are my top ten summers in fiction:

 

  1. Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Two families arrive at their rented villa in the south of France to find a naked young woman floating in the pool. They invite her to stay, and her presence precipitates no small degree of chaos. Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2012, the summer setting is particularly poignant when seen through the eye of teenage daughter, Nina.

 

  1. The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden

The five Grey children arrive at a French hotel late at night and with a very ill mother. The sort of family who wear school uniform as their best, they are not appealing to the surly concierge or to the exotic owner, Mademoiselle Zizi, neither of whom want to take on the responsibility for their welfare. Elliot, Zizi’s mysterious English lover, comes to the rescue. The old hotel by the Marne, backed by a greengage orchard, drowses through the summer heat as events move inexorably to their tragic conclusion. Exquisite.

Bonjour Tristesse

Jean Seberg in the 1958 film of Bonjour Tristesse

  1. Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

The last French idyll for now. Cecile and her youthful playboy of a father head to the Riviera only to have their pleasures curtailed by the arrival of Anne, an elegant family friend. You can’t help sympathising with Cecile: who would want to swap afternoons bathing in the Mediterranean, or kissing handsome university students beneath the pine trees for the study of boring old philosophy? This is a slim book, suffused with the essence of Frenchness. Feel the heat of the sun as you read.

 

  1. The Accidental by Ali Smith

Not set in France, but in a rented house in Norfolk, this mirrors Swimming Home in that another unexpected guest turns up, invades the family group, and sets off all sorts of cats among pigeons. The narrative unfolds through multiple overlapping voices, but the one I remember the most is twelve year old Astrid, perfectly capturing the endless length of the summer days.

 

  1. Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

Who can forget the summer of 1976? I was six, and remember it as a time of apocalyptic portent, making this choice a representation of summer squared before I even opened the covers. It’s the third month of the drought, and Robert Riordan has not returned from getting his newspaper. Following four narrative threads (Riordan’s disappearance, and the back stories of his three children), the story moves to the west coast of Ireland in time for the temperature, and the tension, to break.

 

  1. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I got this as a Christmas present from my agent, and read it one chilly weekend when I should probably have been editing or something. It was worth it. Ferrante takes us into the heart of a Neapolitan slum where, over the course of several summers (bit of a cheat there), we are drawn into the ups and downs of an intense world and an even more intense friendship.

Brat Farrar

  1. Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey

One of the most perfect books ever written. If you haven’t read it yet, then do so immediately, preferably under an oak tree with the sounds of an English summer floating in the background. If you can’t find an oak tree, don’t worry: you’ll be transported there anyway. Tey unfolds her mystery with understated beauty, as the Ashbys of Latchetts come to terms with the unexpected reappearance of Patrick, who went missing as a boy. But all, of course, is not as it seems.

 

  1. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier

This battles with The House on the Strand as my favourite du Maurier. Dona St Columb escapes to Cornwall from the fetid atmosphere of Restoration London. Casting off the stifling conventions of her life, she roams barefoot in the woods and falls in with Jean Benoit Aubery, French pirate, artist and free-thinking idealist. Dreamy, languid and gorgeous.

Brideshead Revisited

Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in the Granada TV Series of 1981

  1. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Quintessential, yes? I recently downloaded the audio version to listen to in the car, and it took me right back to the yearning of being a teenager and watching the BBC adaptation with Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons and having that theme tune echoing round my head. Pass the strawberries, darling.

  1. Spies by Michael Frayn

‘The third week of June, and there it is again: the same almost embarrassingly familiar breath of sweetness that comes every year about this time…For a moment I’m a child again and everything’s before me – all the frightening, half-understood promise of life.’

So begins Stephen’s journey back into one summer of his childhood, fifty years earlier. Sucked me in, spat me out and left me disorientated, half in another world. Awesome.

 

What would your choices be? Feel free to comment with your own suggestions!

 

The Summer of Secrets comes out on August 13th.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Comments

  1. Kinga
    11 Jul 2015

    Isn’t it called ‘My Brilliant Friend’ in English? 🙂

    • Tilly
      13 Jul 2015

      Oops, you are ABSOLUTELY RIGHT! Thanks for that!

  2. Louise Swingler
    14 Jul 2015

    What a fabulous list! And a wonderful (and necessary counter-balancing act. Some of my favourites are here and some new ones to try too…thanks.

  3. Joanna Campbell
    21 Jul 2015

    Thank you for all these lovely suggestions. I agree with many of them being brilliant summer reads, although struggled a little with Swimming Home.

    I have just re-read Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair, but have not yet read Brat Farrar. I think I am in for a treat.

  4. Poppy Peacock
    21 Jul 2015

    Great list – will explore Brat Darren & got 4,5 & 6 on my TBR

    I’d add Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

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