Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street. Ok, maybe not quite such brazen displays of fun, but, without a doubt summer is the best season. There we said it.
You have the girls in their summer dresses (thanks Bruce Springsteen) and the boys in a jovial mood. The air is ripe with possibility. And nowhere is this theme better captured than in literature. Summer has provided a backdrop to some of the best writing extant.
So, get your trunks, grab a towel and let’s head to a metaphorical – or literal, hey, it’s your choice – beach and dive headfirst into literature’s 25 greatest summer moments.
Oh, and don’t forget your suntan lotion…
Absolute Beginners (Colin MacInnes)
MacInnes’ cult classic details four months in the life of his narrator – an aspiring photographer and hip kid about London town in the summer of 1958. A beguiling mix of teenagers, advertising moguls, teddy boys, TV personalities abound in one of the first books to properly depict the birth of our modern age. The heat of summer plays a pivotal role in MacInnes’ text as the racial tensions in Notting Hill slowly begin to unravel and erupt in an orgy of violence.
Summer Crossing (Truman Capote)
Although it was published somewhat belatedly in 2005 – 20 years after his death – Summer Crossing was actually intended to be Truman Capote’s first novel (for many years it was assumed to be destroyed). In true Capote fashion, the book concerns a torrid summer romance in New York in 1945 between a 17-year-old upper class girl and a Jewish parking attendant. Scarlett Johansson will make her directorial debut with an adaptation due in 2014.
Waiting For Sunrise (William Boyd)
Summer’s stifling temperatures can have a dizzying and mystifying affect – a perfect tonic for an espionage novel as William Boyd expertly proves in his 2012 novel. Lysander Rief is a young English actor who finds himself in the Vienna heat of 1913 seeking to find a cure for his neurosis. He becomes embroiled in a web of sex and scandal in a world on the precipice of war.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)
The book which kick-started modern American literature – according to Ernest Hemingway at least – sees the titular character traversing the vast stretches of water that makes up the Mississippi River during a typical long, hot summer in the Deep South. Adventure, escape and friendship are key themes – much like most people’s idealized vision of their own carefree summer months.
King Suckerman (George Pelecanos)
It’s summer 1976 and all of America is gearing up for its Bicentennial celebrations. In Washington the soaring temperatures are combining with a heady mix of Blaxploitation movies, soul music, recreational drugs and violent crime, to set off a chain of events that threaten to spoil fast friends Dimitri Karras and Marcus Clay’s plans.
The Last Weekend (Blake Morrison)
Friendship comes under the intense spotlight in this shocking novel from Blake Morrison. Ian and Ollie are old university room-mates, but in the intervening 20 years their lives have taken very different paths. A short break with their wives during a very British August heat wave threatens to blow the lid on simmering resentments, rivalries and sexual jealously.
To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
Not just one of the best books to summon up the inscrutability of summer, but one of the best books ever. Harper Lee’s only novel is a classic tale of the friendships that are forged during long hot summers (the camaraderie between Jem, Scout and Dill is beautifully drawn), but also evokes the racial tension in the Deep South during the Depression years.
The Talented Mr Ripley (Patricia Highsmith)
Hightailing it around the Italian Coast has long been a summer favourite for jet set playboys – and this whirl of parties, cocktails and lazy days is captured memorably by Patricia Highsmith in this fascinating psychological thriller as small time crook Tom Ripley sets out assuming the identity of wealthy shipping heir Dickie Greenleaf.
Atonement (Ian McEwan)
Ian McEwan’s epic tome actually spans 60 years of intrigue, mistakes and regrets, but the pivot upon which this memorable novel turns takes place during the sweltering summer of 1935. Cecilia and Robbie are young lovers lost in their unique moment of passion – this is no summer fling. However, Cecilia’s younger sister Briony interprets their love differently setting off a chain of events from which there is no return.
The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Summer is a time of celebration, of partying until dawn and embarking on new adventures. F Scott Fitzgerald’s enduring classic encapsulates these themes (and the resultant flipside) as the long hot summers of the Roaring Twenties are brought vividly to life. As the book itself describes: “I love New York on summer afternoons when everyone’s away. There’s something very sensuous about it – overripe, as if all sorts of funny fruits were going to fall into your hands.”
The Beach (Alex Garland)
Compared to our dreary and erratic summer months, the sun that beats down almost permanently in the Far East seems exotic. It’s unsurprising that the likes of Thailand have drawn travellers in search of hedonism and/or enlightenment in this seemingly perpetual state of summer. Alex Garland’s cult novel draws, initially, an idealized vision of society that soon takes a darker tone.
The Body (Stephen King)
Best known for its film adaptation – the perfect Stand By Me – The Body, much like a latter day Huckleberry Finn, captures that haunting nostalgia of youth and its attendant seasonal moment, summer. Gordie Lachance and his three buddies go in search of the body of a young boy from a neighbouring town. On the way, they learn about life, friendship and the fleeting moments of happiness in an otherwise wretched existence. That the book is told in retrospect only adds to the sense of lost freedom.
Summer (Edith Wharton)
While not as feted as her astounding The Age Of Innocence, Edith Wharton’s Summer is an equally hypnotizing read. Born to a prostitute Charity Royall is taken under the wing of Lawyer Royall. One summer, when on the precipice of adulthood, Charity falls for the delicious charms of Lucius Harney. Their romance burns as hot as the summer, but as the temperatures cool so does Harney’s passion…
Light In August (William Faulkner)
Joe Christmas is the forgotten giant of American literature – a character so rich and dramatic he deserves to be lauded alongside Jay Gatsby, Huck Finn and co. It’s Christmas that drives William Faulkner’s treatise on the complexities of the American South in the interwar period. Race, class, romance and religion all feature in a novel that foretells the cold realities of the months that follow summer.
Cider With Rosie (Laurie Lee)
Because of the bountiful themes that summer provokes – many which have been outlined in the books above – it is the season to which novels will wistfully look back towards with most affection. Although Cider With Rosie takes place over a number of years, it is the summer months in the idyllic village of Slad in the Cotswolds that fire the imagination.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare)
One of the Bard’s most cherished plays is a clever exploration of the whimsical qualities that summer abundantly offers. Mistaken identities and fairies cosy up with the unexplainable nature of love in this comedic tour de force that could only be set during the colourful summer months.
Paris Trance (Geoff Dyer)
Luke arrives in Paris in the summer with the vague notion of writing a great novel and emulating the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. He doesn’t of course, but he soon falls in with another English émigré Alex – their lives soon become a whirl of hedonism, romance and long, meaningful chats about life. The heat of the Parisian streets bursts off the page in this mesmeric glance at the lives of 20-something slackers.
One Day (David Nicholls)
The one day in question being 15 July – St Swithin’s Day. Nicholls’s acclaimed best-seller returns to this day over 20 years; in doing so he charts the vicissitudes of Dexter and Emma’s intriguing friendship. It’s no secret that there’s tragedy in store, and for one of the characters they will never reach the autumn of their lives – for them, at least, it will always be glorious summer.
Summerland (Michael Chabon)
Michael Chabon’s novels are the stuff of mind-bending imagination (see The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union for proof). But he really went to town with this book for kids (or young adults to give them their correct marketing demographic). Set in a mythical island (an American Narnia) in Washington state where summer is just that, this book focuses on baseball and fairies and so much more.
The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)
Based on real events – or a roman a clef in literary circles – Hemingway’s acclaimed book recounts the magical summer of 1925 when a group of friends (the so-called lost generation) leave behind the decadent cafes of Paris to take a trip to the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls. Fishing trips in Pyrenees and sexual indiscretions pepper one of Hemingway’s greatest works, and one that certainly captures the effusive nature of summer’s freedom.
Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
It’s when Dolores Haze goes away to summer camp that Nabokov’s controversial novel really cranks into gear. The grotesque desires of her stepfather Humbert are uncovered by his wife, Dolores’s mother, but fate intervenes and Humbert is free to have his wicked way with the 12-year-old girl Lolita. Nabokov’s provocative novel depicts summer as a corruptible emotion.
Up At The Villa (W Somerset Maugham)
Up At The Villa is a proper ripsnorter of a book, a real page turner. The action takes place at an exquisite villa in Florence, Italy, where a young beautiful widow Mary Panton plays a dangerous game of suspense and intrigue with three men vying for her attention. The long languid days give way to darker nights, and the smothering heat of summer finally forces Mary’s hand.
Tender Is The Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
An idyllic villa in the South of France would appear to be heaven on earth – but in F Scott Fitzgerald’s masterly hands it becomes the place where dreams are shattered and finely balanced realities are torn asunder. Dick and Nicole Diver appear to be a decadent couple with everything going for them, but when they adopt a young actress into their circle of friends a more sinister truth emerges.
Where Angels Fear To Tread (E. M. Forster)
Italy in the summer is again the backdrop to a novel that thrills and moves in equal measure. E. M. Forster has form when it comes to summer novels – A Room With A View in particular – and again he expertly captures that heady rush of the summer romance and the unfortunate aftermath with infectious ease. The passages describing the picturesque Tuscany countryside are particularly idyllic.
I Like It Here (Kingsley Amis)
It’s hardly revelatory to say that Kingsley Amis was a funny old soul, and a funny old soul was he. Despite an initial worldview that tended towards the left, he was dismissive of abroad. This frame of mind found a sardonic vehicle in his caustic I Like It Here. Aspiring writer Garnet Bowen takes a job in Portugal much to his chagrin – the heat confirms his suspicions of foreigners and reinforces his indignant ire. Sometimes, summer just isn’t all its cracked up to be for some people. Like we say, Amis was a funny old soul.