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Top 10 Summer Reads

Summer, Edith Wharton, 1917

I’m going to start with an obvious pick: Summer by Edith Wharton. I read this for the first time recently, in spring, when I was trying to manifest the onset of summer, and it was absolutely consuming to say the least. Set in the heady countryside of New England, this succinct novel sees seventeen-year-old Charity Royall unearth love and intense passion when the intellectual Lucius Harney descends upon her small home-town. Wharton received backlash for Summer’s unfeigned treatment of female sexuality and passion, but it is this that makes Charity so likeable, even in her moments of naivety. What sticks with me the most from this novel is its ending. Although not catastrophic, nor epic, nor devastating, Wharton’s quiet close to the novel opens up one of the most complex male characters I’ve ever come across. Filled with passion that is only matched by the hot, sticky, crowded festival scenes, this novel promises to ignite your summer reading.

‘An Easy Passage’ (poem), Julia Copus, 2010

Winner of The Forward Prize for best single poem in 2010, Julia Copus’ poem An Easy Passage is an intensely bright, over-exposed evocation of a childhood summer. The two girls featuring in the poem, find themselves perched on an external window ledge, which Copus parallels with their being also on the brink of teenagerhood, desperately wanting to be older and adorning their bodies in an effort to do so. Copus’ use of imagery is striking: ‘the blond / gravel somewhere beneath her’, ‘leaning in / to the warm flank of the house’, ‘the five neat shimmering-oyster-painted toenails of an outstretched foot’. This poem pulses with blistering heat and intense female friendship, that combine to create something akin to the feeling of blurred, dizzy childhood memories. 

Manhattan Beach, Jenniger Egan, 2017

Summer often gives us the free time to wallow in long, indulgent books, and Manhattan Beach by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Jennifer Egan, is one of those. Manhattan Beach by definition is a historical novel set in 1930s New York and begins amongst the fallout of the Great Depression. Egan’s novel tracks Anna Kerrigan’s love and subsequent loss of her father, as well as the uncovering of his mysterious disappearance. The earlier parts of the novel, when Anna is only eleven, are sensitively written, often hiding things from Anna herself, but revealing them to the reader. The novel flashes forward in time to when Anna is nineteen, fatherless and trying to support her mother and disabled sister, eventually leaving her unpassionate job to become the Navy Yard’s first female diver, working on underwater repairs. What distinguishes Manhattan Beach is a rumbling backdrop of underground, salacious, half-kept secrets and crime. Clocking in at around 450 pages, this is definitely a book for anyone looking for well-written escapism post-exam season.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy, 1891

I don’t think any summer reading list would be complete without Thomas Hardy, and his tales complex tales of countryfolk. Hardy is a bit of anomaly for me in that he is one of few male Victorian novelists that appears to understand and sympathise with women’s experience at the time (Also George Gissing, whose The Odd Women is the best feminist novel of the nineteenth century – Ed). Tess of the d’Urbervilles, for its eponymous countrywoman Tess Durbeyfield, is practically a disaster from start to finish. In being told that the surname Durbeyfield is a corruption of the aristocratic d’Urberville, Tess is sent by her father to claim their ‘rightful roots’. Tess encounters many people throughout the novel – Mrs d’Urberville, Alec d’Urberville, Angel Clare – all of whom eventually fail her. Characteristic of Hardy’s tragic realism, Tess for me is an intensely lonely book, as we see how time and again Tess must face her challenging circumstances alone. I associate this book with summer largely because of how much of the book takes outdoors, as well as its heavily agricultural setting and backdrop. Perhaps not the most light-hearted pick-me-up, but definitely an absorbing read with a fabulously gothic ending. 

Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee, 1959

‘I was set down from the carrier’s cart at the age of three; and there with a sense of bewilderment and terror my life in the village began’, is how Laurie Lee starts his much-loved ode to the British countryside. Achieving a childhood perception of the abundant Cotswolds, Lee captures the end of the First World War, and the subsequently untroubled moment before the onset of the second world war. In the section Winter and Summer, the long days spent entirely outdoors, when the children gorge themselves on berries, is contrasted with the bitter cold of winter, when boys forage with tins of burning rags to keep their hands warm. The descriptions of the village’s coldest winter only make the summer scenes appear all the more lush and vivid. Although this can easily be characterised as a blissful novel, Lee includes moments of grief, such as the death of one of his sisters, and the illnesses that he also suffered, often bringing him close to death. 

The Country Girls trilogy, Edna O’Brien, 1960-1964

For this next pick, I asked my tutor Professor Rebecca Beasley for her own recommendation. What I loved about this recommendation was that James Joyces’ Ulysses still managed to get a sneaky mention. This is what Rebecca said: 

“My summer reading usually consists of big (I mean physically big), much-lauded books I’ve been meaning to read for years. They pretty much always turn out to be amazing and I kick myself for not having got to them earlier. Difficult to choose one recommendation, but I’ll go for Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls trilogy, especially the first of the three. If you read Ulysses and wished there’d been more of Molly (or Milly) in it, this is for you.”

‘This is just to say’, William Carlos Williams, 1934 

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably


for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

Possibly William Carlos Williams’ most famous poem, ‘This is just to say’ makes it on to this list largely because of the sensory experience it elicits. The ‘so sweet / and so cold’ fruit prickles all over with refreshing coolness, and the prospect of having this chilled fruit for breakfast is something I can only associate with hot summer mornings. Even though this is a poem that asks for forgiveness, I think anyone could sympathise with the narrator here, since Williams makes the fruit appear irresistible, even with only a few, judicious words. 

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier, 1938

This is possibly my favourite novel of all time, and so I’m going to take any chance I can to talk about it. But Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier isn’t on here simply because I adore it, but rather because of one specific description in the novel that has really stuck with me. The novel depicts a young and unnamed woman, who, after meeting and courting Maxim de Winter for only two weeks whilst on holiday, returns to his mansion, Manderley, in Cornwall to marry him. Throughout this book, the sinister past of Manderley is revealed with chilling control, and the narrator often finds respite from the suffocating atmosphere of the house in long walks to the sea. On many such walks, the narrator traverses a valley filled with azaleas which Du Maurier describes wonderfully: 

“There were no dark trees here, no tangled undergrowth, but on either side of the narrow path stood azaleas and rhododendrons, not blood-coloured like the giants in the drive, but salmon, white, and gold, things of beauty and of grace, drooping their lovely, delicate heads in the soft summer rain. 

“The air was full of their scent, sweet and heady, and it seemed to me as though their very essence had mingled with the running waters of the stream, and become one with the falling rain and the dank rich moss beneath our feet. There was no sound here but the tumbling of the little stream, and the quiet rain.”

The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen, 1938

Portia, the main character of The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen, is naturally and brilliantly awkward. Having travelled extensively as a child, Portia from the beginning of this novel is characteristically untethered, even when she moves in with her half-brother, after the death of her mother. What strikes me as summery about The Death of the Heart is mostly the section of the novel in which Portia is effectively banished to the seaside. Not only does this mark another geographical move for Portia, but it also marks the moment at which her first attempts at love completely unravel. Even though this novel is set in the 30s, I don’t think I’ve ever read something that reminds me more of being sixteen. 

A Room with a View, E. M. Forster, 1908

To round up this list, I’m picking another classic summer read: A Room with a View by E. M. Forster. The novel opens in Florence where Lucy and her chaperone Charlotte are dismaying over the lack of a view that they have in their rooms at the Pensione Bertolini. This starts an acquaintance with another guest, Mr. Emerson, and his brooding, distant son, George. The romance and beauty of the Italian city is never far away from the background of this novel. Plot-wise, not a great deal actually happens in A Room with a View, but I think this lends itself to the simmering tensions that frequent the character relations. My favourite part of this novel by far is the tryst that happens in a swathe of violets: 

‘She did not answer. From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.’

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