That Summer by Lauren Willig is a book I thoroughly enjoyed until I started thinking about it too much.
I really wanted to love this novel because it felt like the perfect story to delve into during a cold winter month. In many ways it was, as it took place almost entirely in the English countryside, with at least half of the story occurring during the rich and opulent Victorian era. The notion of a 30-something protagonist travelling to England to investigate the house she inherited from a long lost aunt immediately grabbed my attention. The structure of the novel reminded me very much of historical fiction stories I’ve read in the past, such as Anne Fortier’s Juliet, with one chapter recounting the modern day life of Julia and the next detailing the life of her Victorian ancestor, Imogen. Unfortunately, I remember loving Fortier’s Juliet when I read it a few years ago, and although this made me very confident that I would love That Summer, it just didn’t grab or touch me as much as all the other things I’ve read recently.
That Summer could’ve been an incredible story if it wasn’t so simple. It was almost 350 pages, and so I think there was ample space for Willig to explore certain topics and plot points in more detail. Instead, she gestures towards certain characters and their emotions rather than delving deeply into them. Despite the fact that Julia is arguably the focal point of the entire plot, her emotions are very poorly developed. Julia’s struggles with her mother’s death when she was only a child are inconsistent, as she waivers between wanting to ignore memories of her mother and wanting to invite them into her consciousness within the same paragraph or even sentence. Her revelations about her mother at the end and her desire to learn more about her are never fully explored in any way before the conclusion, and her unhappiness and discontent with her work in the financial industry and her desire to go back to art school are repeatedly mentioned but are never fleshed out. Willig alludes to issues that Julia faces, but rather than tackling them and forcing her character to reside in them, she tells the reader that Julia feels certain emotions, and then updates them later that her feelings have changed. Julia decides she ultimately might want to go back to art school, Willig tells us, but then we never hear any more about why her passion for art has been reignited. It’s fair to assume it’s because she’s discovered a Pre-Raphaelite painting in her aunt’s house, but although Julia takes an interest in researching the painting, the reader gets no internal monologue that would let us know what’s going on in her mind during her investigations, and Willig doesn’t show us any evolution in Julia’s approach to life or any revelation about her lifestyle. Instead, we are expected to accept what we are told and move on. The same approach is taken to Julia’s reluctance to build close relationships. She doubts the integrity of the antiques dealer, Nick, she meets for most of the novel, even when he becomes a possible love interest, and she mentions that both her stepmother Helen and her best friend Lexie (both characters who are mentioned by name but who we rarely, if ever, experience interacting with Julia) have alerted her to her trust issues, but we never learn what is going on within her to make her react this way. Again, it is fair to assume that it’s because of her mother’s death, but instead of showing this to us subtly and letting us feel Julia’s reluctance and distrust with her, we are summarily told that the childhood loss of her parent might have affected Julia’s current approach to relationships. For example, we are told on page 296 (too close to the end of the story if you ask me!) that Julia stayed friends with her exes because she never let them too close – but why did we need to be told that? Why not allude to this sort of behaviour through Julia’s actions, instead of mentioning something like that so randomly at the end of the novel? We could’ve seen this sort of tendency in Julia’s actions, if only Willig focused more on presenting them rather than summarizing facts about Julia that Willig seemed to hope would add up to who she is. Eventually Julia decides to give Nick and romance a chance, but we don’t ever find out why she’s had a change of heart. The mention of Nick’s backstory seems totally halfhearted, and while it is used as an excuse for Julia’s doubts about him, his past is never fully explored and so the reader is left wondering why Julia has an issue with it to begin with.
There are also a number of characters that are totally unnecessary, in my opinion. I’ve already mentioned Helen and Lexie, who Julia refers to but never elaborates on, but there are several other characters that barely appear in the novel and seem to just take up unneeded space. Julia’s cousin Natalie is a prime example: she is present for much of the first part of the novel, but then she falls off the face of the Earth toward the end and she seems to be used more as a stereotypical mean girl employed to frustrate Julia more than anything else. Don’t even get me started on Natalie’s brother who appears only in one chapter of the novel. He doesn’t do anything substantial and I truly have no idea why he was even included! The same is true of Natalie’s mother Caroline – it is almost as though Willig added these characters to make her story more rich and complex, but really, they succeeded in doing just the opposite.
Another thing that really irked me about this novel was all the spelling and grammatical errors in it. They seriously impeded the reading experience. I can’t really blame this on Willig because her editor should take more of the responsibility, but it was just totally absurd to me that some of these mistakes were made. The most glaring ones were when Willig employed the wrong pronoun and put “he” and “her” together in the same sentence. I don’t have an exact example from the text because I wasn’t able to go back and find any, but each error was something along the lines of “he held the book within her hands”. Moreover, there were multiple instances of duplicated words in sentences and phrases like “Julia hauled herself into the one of the high…” really stopped my reading flow short. It was a real shame that Willig’s story was marred by these easily avoidable errors.
The only thing I really enjoyed about this story was Imogen’s plot line. I am very fond of Victorian stories in general, and Imogen’s life was exceedingly more interesting and endearing than Julia’s. Her interiority was also much stronger and I felt that she was altogether more fleshed out and realistic. The loveliest moment of the entire novel for me was one toward the end when Imogen sees Gavin for the last time. Without giving too much away, Gavin arrives to take Imogen away from her torturous life, and it is a quiet moment that is very well painted and beautiful. This translates into a charming scene in which Julia is standing outside the summerhouse at Herne Hill and seems to see Gavin, who is firmly in Imogen’s Victorian story and not in the modern day. These moments really did touch me – I only wish the novel had been full of more of them!
This is a hard novel for me to rate. I did enjoy the process of reading it, and as I said, I only noticed its flaws when I would set it down. Once I thought about it more though, I became so horribly frustrated with it! I would sort of compare my time reading it to sitting at home on a Saturday night watching Under the Tuscan Sun on TV. It was a fun experience, not groundbreaking or earthshattering, but pleasant enough. I only wish my experience had stopped there, at that superficial level, and that I hadn’t felt inclined to think so much about the details that were annoying and not properly fleshed out. Unfortunately, the English student in me prevailed this time!
❥❥ (out of 5)
Girl with a Green Heart