Review: Summer Song by Louise Blaydon

Billy Bronner is, to all appearances, every inch the 1950s American dream: handsome, clever, captain of the high school football team, looks good enough in tight jeans that people can even forget he’s Jewish. Then the new guy on the block, the enigmatic Leonard Nachman, turns his head, and over the summer Billy discovers a new world of romance and love—in a man’s arms. But when Kit O’Reilly, Billy’s best friend and shadow, comes home after spending the summer with relatives, he finds Billy acting… differently. Soon enough, it becomes obvious that this change is related to Len, and Kit will have to decide if he’ll accept the relationship Billy and Len have forged, or if he’ll push Billy and their longtime friendship away.

Review by Erastes

This is a rather ambitious book which works on most levels, but falls down on others, but it’s a very brave attempt and shows the author’s disregard to write within “normal” parameters.

The book is told from four points of view, Billy Bronner himself, his best friend Kit, his love interest Leonard and Kit’s girlfriend Caitlyn. They are all told in first person present, with the exception of Leonard’s which is done in the form of a diary, so is more past. I admit that this isn’t my favourite way of delivery, but done well it can be very effective and to be  honest it is done well, with gusto and determination, even if it was a little confusing, because unless the chapter was a diary entry, it took a paragraph or two to work out who was “talking,” and as Caitlyn’s POV doesn’t come in until over half way through the book it was a bit of a jolt–I couldn’t see what her point of view added to the story, actually and the book wouldn’t have lost anything by losing her chapters. However, the voices of Billy, Kit and Leonard are well-written and pretty distinct. Billy and Kit’s are quite similar, but that makes sense because they were raised together since they were very young–Leonard’s voice–he’s a preppy from a public school from the East Coast, even though he’s described as coming from the “North Coast” more than once(!) and his voice is more formal with less slang.

So Kit goes on vacation for the summer, leaving the restless Billy behind and while he’s away, Billy–who we are told has a bad boy reputation, but sadly this really isn’t shown–meets Leonard on the beach. They get to go swimming and start spending time together, and things move along from there.

There’s no “insta-love” – the relationship has eight weeks to blossom and to reach a place where there’s no going back, and both young men (both 17 for those who are sticklers for this kind of thing) are entirely clueless as to what’s happening to them. After the kissing starts they have to assess their own feelings and how they feel about this affecting their lives.

An important leg to the 3-way relationship is Kit–and how he discovers their relationship, how he deals with it and how his loyalty overcomes his disgust and discomfort.

Rather stereotypically, Leonard is more aware of homosexuality than Billy, because he went to a public school where these things are done but not discussed. Leonard is more analytical about it all, and goes to books to find out more.  It surprised me a little that he relied entirely on Catullus’s “pornographic” poems for his research on anal sex–and didn’t seek out (once he’d discovered the over-labelled “happy button” inside himself) books on anatomy to find out what it was.

Overall, the voices of 1950’s teenagers are pretty well portrayed, if–again–all a little stereotypical. Red Chevvies and sprayed on jeans and the like but I felt it was all a little too insular. This is 1955 after all and there was a hell of a lot going on in the world and America at the time. McDonalds were expanding all over California, Disneyland opened in Anaheim, Gunsmoke started, James Dean is killed. Yet none of these are mentioned, the only music that’s mentioned is “song by Elvis” not even the names of the songs. Considering that Billy is rather setting himself up to emulate Dean, I was staggered that no-one, not even Caitlyn was affected by his death.  I know that teenagers all over the world were pole-axed by that event. The book needed a lot more popular culture to ground itself in the era. It’s a bit like writing about youth culture today and not mentioning hip-hop or the hoodie.

I have to say also, Elvis didn’t have a hit until 1956, so. Oops.

That being said there are some great “real-teenager” moments like the following from Leonard: “I was going to say something else but I can’t remember what it was” (after he’d been describing Billy). There’s also a hilarious moment which made me laugh out loud when Billy describes himself as a free radical–typical teenager using the wrong term, to sound clever. However some–and quite rarely–of the prose slipped into modernisms–To name but two – Billy calls Leonard “passive aggressive” which being a phrase from the 70’s – no teenager of the era would have done. Similar “skank” is not a word used of women of these era.

It does tend to go on a bit at times, with the characters saying the same thing over and over again–and the whole pre-prom thing was tedious in the extreme. A more judicious editing needed, I think.

There were a couple of boo-boos early on which jarred me and made me wonder what kind of research I was going to encounter. The very first diary entry was 31st June… and then when the 4th of July is mentioned there’s no mention of the celebration at all. No picnics, no fireworks–considering that Leonard lived on a busy beach, that seemed rather incongruous. He and his mother went shopping–do shops open on the 4th? Leonard bewails the fact that photos can’t show the colour of Billy’s eyes and that was a bit odd, because colour photography was well advanced by this point in time, and French homework changed into Spanish.

The major problem I had with the book, and why it didn’t get a four or a four and half which it could easily have merited (with better research too), was the entire lack of conflict. Granted there’s a fair bit of angst from all four participants, which can get a little wearing over the course of ¾ of the book, but conflict? No. I was reading the story with the feeling of the sword of Damocles hanging over me, because everyone was talking about how dangerous it was for them to be doing the things they were doing, but no-one actually cares to do much to disguise it. The couple are constantly wandering into conveniently empty schoolrooms, making out on a secluded beach that only Billy can access, dancing together in a restaurant with no-one commenting, kissing in the dark where ONLY Kit ever catches them.

No one at high school notices their preferential behaviour, despite the fact that it’s obvious not only to Kit but to Caitlyn too. There’s a character introduced early on who I thought was going to be trouble, but he’s also clueless about the situation.  There’s no “normal for the time” paranoia and homophobia. Leonard even has to look up the law to find out what is illegal and what isn’t. Now, I can understand that kids in school and suburbs might not be able to get hold of literature explaining things, but I’m damned sure that everyone knew what a queer, faggot, fruit, pansy [insert your word of choice here] was.

It’s all a bit Happy Gay Days, a bit Grease without the harder hitting issues that Grease managed to deal with. I think the author liked her characters so much–and that’s understandable, they are all nice nice kids, that she simply couldn’t bear to have them beaten up, insulted, suspected, arrested, or in fact anything nasty happen to them at all. Which is a shame, because the ending didn’t have the same happy punch as it should have had because they didn’t go through the mill, or even drive anywhere near it. Even in the epilogue it’s only said that “they had a couple of close shaves.” That might actually have been the case for some gay men–I’m sure it was, but it doesn’t make for a gripping read.

All in all this is an enjoyable book, and I’m sure the lack of external conflict won’t worry most readers. I could see this book having sold to the mainstream, were the mainstream sensible enough to publish it. Recommended, but you might be mildly disappointed.

Amazon UK     Amazon USA

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