I just finished this book. My eyes are stinging, and I have that doofy smile on my face that comes from good book bliss. This is a book for vacations, for quiet afternoons or evenings when it’s just you, a book, and a few precious hours to yourself, for escape and respite, and for bittersweet and beautiful historical romance. (Yes. I liked it. A lot.)
Lady Jane Cummings is better known as “Lady Jane of Society Fame.” She’s a natural in a party setting, she was the toast of London society, and she desperately misses her ability to truly enjoy both of those things. But because her father’s health is slowly declining with ever-advancing dementia, and because Jane’s mother died some years past, she alone bears the responsibility that ought to have been her brother’s. But her brother, Jason, is too busy trying to remain the young, carefree man he’s been for the past few years. When Jane’s brother Jason finally understands the depth of mental decline facing their father, he removes the family to their summer estate in Reston, a small town by a lakeside where their father loved to spend the summer, where Jason found his first love, and where Jane is despairing of ever relaxing, or even remembering who she was before all the problems of the family landed on her.
Then, she meets – or becomes reacquainted with – Byrne Worth, who, due to a war injury, is convalescing in stubborn, surly solitude in a cabin he inherited from his aunt. The cabin stands on Jane’s family’s property, and after Jane encounters him, she finds she can’t stay away from him. He appreciates her honestly, flaws and perfection and all, and in his company Jane finds a respite from the painful facts of her father’s mental health, her brother’s slackassedness, and her personal loneliness. Worth, however, due to his surly manners and desire to be left well the hell alone, has developed a very suspicious reputation among the small town of Reston, particularly after a highwayman begins to attack coaches and people along the route in and out of town. The townspeople begin to suspect that it’s Worth – because who else could it be than the unfriendly outsider who is so determined to remain an outsider?
Noble’s writing is just wretchedly beautiful. Seriously. If I wrote fiction I’d be pissed off that this book was so good. Here’s an example: Jane takes the long carriage ride up to Reston, and on the way begins to see all the familiar markers to the long journey that she remembers from her childhood, among them a giant oak tree she nicknamed “the Beast,” which used to scare her until her late mother told her that if she waved at the tree, the faeries that lived within it would wave back:
Every year after, even when she was long past the age of believing in the Fairy Lord, she would wave to the Beast, taking a childish delight in its rumpled visage as it waved back, or didn’t, on the whims of the breeze.
And so it was only natural that now, as the carriage rolled past, Jane raised her hand and gave the smallest of waves. But the surprise was how her heart lifted to see those ancient limbs lift on the wind, cheering her on her journey.
Much of the book takes place from within Jane’s point of view, though it is not first person. Noble’s skill is in creating a character so vivid, I laughed at her sense of humor, and felt empathy when the complexity and challenge of her life was revealed bit by bit. After she meets Mr. Worth, she decides to send him a basket of jam and bread to thank him for helping her family in a tight moment:
…she sat at her mother’s escritoire, intending to write the disagreeable hermit a short note, and sending it off with a footman. After all, a disagreeable hermit would likely rather be sent thanks than receive people.
The themes of this book are woven through each character in ways that mirror, compliment, and reveal – and give the reader a lot to think about. It examines the comfort and fear inherent in someone seeing you for who you really are, and the fear that comes from seeing how changed you are from who you used to be. Worth used to be more physically able, and so did Jane’s father, the Duke. Jason is intent on remaining the same, even when he truly cannot , despite his best efforts. Jane herself wishes she hadn’t ever realized how painful life could be, so she could go back to being the carefree debutante she was in season’s past. All of them seeing one another honestly, or from behind artificial fronts, creates an additional layer of intrigue that makes this book a very delicate but sturdy character-driven narrative.
Some of the characters, alas, are stronger than others. The Duke’s increasing dementia is so painful, his moments of terror and clarity are equally powerful. Jane’s desire to compartmentalize her life into before/after, family/not family, painful/carefree is so familiar- I’ve definitely tried to do this in my own life. Byrne’s desire to remain hidden, to be left alone so he can remain the cranky hermit he’s become, even when it’s not truly what he wants, is empathetic as well:
Before his leg, before the war, he would have run up and down, twice a day, to be the first to see the sun in the morning and the last to bid it farewell at night. He missed who he used to be.
And if he couldn’t be who he used to be, he wouldn’t be anyone at all. Jane also cannot be who she used to be – but doesn’t know who or what she is in the meantime. So when Byrne and Jane find one another, and experience the powerful moments of having someone see and appreciate them for who they truly are, it’s sigh-worthy reading, revealed in moments and scenes carefully.
Jason, Jane’s brother, is unfortunately not so well wrought. He’s determined to remain the same even when everything around him changes. He can run away, hide, make himself unavailable, but even when he’s told repeatedly to grow a pair and grow up, I didn’t see him fully appreciate both the limitations he’d placed on his own maturity and self-respect, nor a real reassurance that he’d improve and make amends for what an absolute shit he’d been in the past. This is, unfortunately, a very common tale – one you might have experienced yourself, or seen, where one child bears the responsibility for a failing parent’s health while the other is absent entirely, allowing their sibling to take on nearly all of the care and burden. In real life, there’s rarely a comeuppance for the absent sibling. In this story, I wished for greater recognition from Jason how far he had to travel in experience and behavior to truly live up to the status he imagined himself as possessing.
Another of the themes of the book is seeing – Byrne seeing and recognizing Jane’s sadness and tension, though not knowing the source of it, Jane seeing the true honesty and nobility of Byrne even though most of Reston thinks he’s a criminal – and the visual descriptions support the subtle discussion and reminder of sight and intuition so that the book is a delight for those who “see” the scenes of a novel in their mind:
Jane… chose the path that took her through the woods – the rocky pine forests that fractured the afternoon sun into stage spotlights – falling gracefully on that tree trunk, that large stone, that babbling brook.
Stage spotlights might not be something that Jane has seen in her life, but I immediately saw what Jane was seeing, and loved how time and again the visual descriptions reminded me of how much the characters learn from trusting their own experience rather than the heresay of someone else. Jane is a wonderfully faceted character, too, particularly the degree to which she, like most women, keeps her burdens and pain secret, presenting a happy, socially correct front to the rest of the world. So when genuine people see her pain and troubles, it made me as the reader appreciate them for their discernment and ability to, to put it baldly, see for themselves.
Sometimes when you read a romance, you get the feeling that you’re reading the same set of tropes, the same descriptions, the same setting and stock characters – there’s a worn familiarity to the pieces and the whole. This is not a book like that at all. The Summer of You is vivid and touching, like a thank you note or socially correct gesture that steps beyond mere formality, outside the boring, expected language, and instead communicates something new, something real, something genuine, something special and alive. It is worth savoring and appreciating.