Friday, July 8, 2016
Summer is now in full swing, but there's no better time to read Jessica Brockmole's latest historical novel, AT THE EDGE OF SUMMER (Ballantine). Set in France during the years 1911 to 1919, it offers a poignant story of love and self-discovery amid the turmoil of war and explores the power of art to heal broken souls.
With her artist mother, Maud, having abandoned the family four years earlier and her scholarly grandfather traveling the world in search of obscure dialects, fifteen year-old Clare Ross is left little more than an orphan when her father dies unexpectedly in Scotland. Clare faces a lonely future with only servants for companions until Rowena Crépet, her mother's best friend from art school, whisks her off to Mille Mots, the Crépets' shabby but comfortable manor house in France. Consoled by the Crépets' warm welcome and the bright, unfamiliar colors of the French countryside, Clare slowly begins to heal. The Crépet's tennis-loving son, nineteen year-old Luc, returns from his studies in Paris each weekend to spend time with Clare. Together they steal treats from the kitchen, rove the countryside, draw--and fall in love.
Love, however, is not easy for either of them. Repeatedly abandoned by those closest to her, Clare finds it difficult to trust; she overreacts to perceived slights directed at herself or at her wayward mother. Luc, standing on the brink of his adult life, struggles with his growing feelings for the younger, vulnerable girl. In contrast to Clare, Luc trusts far too easily, as the series of tragic incidents involving a German friend of his will ultimately prove. Just when it seems Clare and Luc might indeed find their way into each other's arms and hearts, events and distance separate them. For a time, they correspond by letter, but ultimately lose track of each other. Chance--and art--will bring them together again, yet each has been so shaped by circumstance that their reunion, on a romantic level, is far from assured. Battle has robbed Luc of trust in himself and others; it up to Clare this time to find a way to draw him from his cave of pain.
Brockmole alternates between Clare's and Luc's perspectives in structuring her tale, offering insights into each character's mind and providing the reader the factual framework behind their frequent misunderstandings. The author employs her knack for letter writing, honed in her immensely popular debut novel LETTERS FROM SKYE (Ballantine, 2013), to good effect in the long stretches of novel where distance separates Clare and Luc. The characters' correspondence skillfully captures the bashful hesitancies and unfulfilled yearnings of a young couple exploring the terrain of love for the very first time. Brockmole grounds her characters' emotional journey squarely in history, constructing a central conflict that pits the duties of national allegiance against the ties of friendship and trust. This betrayal leads the reader into the Parisian studio of sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd, whose staff creates lifelike masks for soldiers disfigured by chemicals or wounds during the war--a fascinating and, for me, unfamiliar place. Although I was a bit disappointed the plot did not more fully exploit the thread of Clare's search for her mother, I found AT THE EDGE OF SUMMER to be a solid and satisfying follow-up to LETTERS FROM SKYE and a perfect summer read.