When you go on holiday, most often it’s just for one summer. Will that be the case for the family in David Baldacci’s novel One Summer?
A Book Review
From Crime to Tragi-Romance
David Baldacci is best known for his thrillers and crime fiction novels. When I was looking for a light read, it therefore came as a surprise to discover a tragi-romance (a made-up genre, but you’ll know what I mean!) by this prolific writer of crime.
Have a Good Cry
They say that literature has a cathartic effect: it helps release strong emotions and provides relief. Basically, you have a good cry and feel better afterwards! Well, I cried buckets. And I felt good afterwards. Because in the end, like all good tragi-romances, things turn out okay.
Jack Armstrong is a thirty-four-year-old veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s married to and deeply in love with his wife Lizzie, and father to three children, two sons, two-year-old Jackie and twelve-year-old Cory, and rebellious teen daughter Mikki. Sammy is part of their family too. He’s a sixty-something Vietnam war vet, single, Jack’s best friend and business partner in their building contracting business in Cleveland.
But wait. Jack is dying.
Not of war wounds, but of a cruel fatal illness that robs him of breath and strength. Unable now to climb the stairs to their bedroom, he is confined to a hospital bed downstairs in the den. He’s attached to an oxygen line, an access line for pain meds and an IV drip to take care of his food and hydration needs. Not even able to share the bed with his beloved wife, his life is ‘being dismantled, brick by brick’.
The Beach House
In one of their last conversations, Lizzy tells Jack she’s been thinking about taking the children to her family’s beach house in Channing, South Carolina after Jack is gone. It’s just for one summer, she tells him. It’s a place that holds both good and unbearably sad memories for Lizzie, and she has not visited there in many years. Jack, pleased that Lizzie is ready to face her past and that she is thinking of the future, encourages her to go. The beach house property includes a lighthouse where Lizzie spent many hours as a child, searching the heavens for something that was lost to her.
But wait. On Christmas Eve, when Jack is writing his seventh and last letter to Lizzie, in the hope it will comfort her after he dies, tragedy unbelievably strikes their family another blow. Lizzie is killed in a car accident.
Jack is forced to watch on helplessly as his mother-in-law Bonnie takes over the running of his family. She moves the children away from Cleveland and their father, and places each of them with three different family members. Jack is moved to a hospice where he will die alone.
Against the odds, Jack begins dragging himself from the brink of death after realising his oxygen line has come loose and he has been breathing on his own. At first, he hardly dares believe it is possible. He mentions it to no one, building up to being able to breathe without the machine and taking walks around the ward at night when he is alone. Initially cautious about being too hopeful and afraid his gradual and seemingly miraculous recovery might be temporary, he begins building up his strength and feels that he is no longer going to die. Some weeks later, to the disbelief of the medical staff, Jack is discharged and begins to reassemble his life, including getting his children back.
Life in the novel, as with life in reality, does not always go smoothly. Jack becomes a temporary hero after a newspaper picks up his story, then just as quickly turns anti-hero when other papers print lies about his being responsible for Lizzie’s death. Mikki his daughter, left with the responsibility of housekeeping and caring for her younger siblings while her dad returns to work, is snappy and irritable most of the time, and critical of his imperfect parenting skills. His grieving mother-in-law Bonnie is distant, reproachful and obstructive.
Better fortune seems to come their way when Lizzie’s grandmother Cecilia, who always had a soft spot for Jack, dies and leaves him the rambling old beach house. Uncertain about whether to take it on, Jack nevertheless decides to visits it with the family and Sammy after Cecilia’s funeral, amid grumbles from Mikki that it’s a ‘dump’ and he better not be thinking of moving there because she doesn’t want to leave her friends behind.
It’s just for one summer …
… he tells her.
Surprisingly, the whole family including Mikki settle into life in Channing over the summer. But just as things are turning around for the family, a perilous storm threatens to snatch Mikki from them, and Jack with her as he tries to save her. Lizzie’s lighthouse plays an important role in the drama.
But I’ve told you enough and I don’t want to ruin the story for you. I’ll leave you to read the book and see how life turns out for the family. Will it be just one summer at the beach house?
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