The promise of the island Wauregan, that “nothing ever changed,” that the colony survived both the Great Depression and both world wars, gives Helen Wadsworth hope as she boards the first ferry to the summer paradise. She desperately needs a carefree summer in her weather beaten shingled cottage on the beach.
Languishing in a relaxed community seems a perfect way to spend the summer of 1948. Even in this small island off the coast of Long Island, people stop to catch their breath after the horrors of World War II. Helen can’t find closure after her husband, Arthur, was declared mysteriously missing after a 1945 OSS operation in France. The hope that he might be alive paralyzes her emotionally. Confused by her anger at her absent husband, she religiously washes and irons his clothes each summer, hoping that when he returns he can easily slip back into the person she used to know. When two other men fall in love with her, she strives to uncover the truth so that she can be free. Frank, Arthur’s friend who was on the same mission, finally discloses what actually happened. Helen takes her son, Pete, to the sight of the mission for closure.
A Certain Summer may be set in an idyllic summer community, but haunted memories and frightened reactions plague its inhabitants. The island and happy memories of time spent there are major themes of the book. Couples stay together to keep their island cottages intact. “Losing the island summers would be another kind of divorce. A man or a woman might find another spouse, but nothing could replace Wauregan.” The healing power of the island is neatly juxtaposed against the tattered emotions and horrid war memories of the people who go there to heal. Their haunted struggle is the overriding premise of the book. The men who returned from World War II are damaged in many ways. Their efforts to keep their ghosts to themselves are valiant. In reality, pain seeps out in the forms of irrational jealousy, brutality, insomnia and impotence.
The book contains a reader's guide with an author’s guide, discussion guide and author interview. The characters are meticulously written, but once you learn more about them you will find your sympathies shifting. Although Helen’s character is not fully filled out, she is a compelling and sympathetic character. The author expertly evokes the atmosphere of the island. You can feel the sand between your toes, feel the pounding surf, smell the diesel fuel from the boats, and hear the laughter of the children set free on their tricycles to roam without parental supervision.
Max, the faithful war dog, is loved by some and feared by others. This new resident, whose battlefield experience will never be known, is gripping and sympathetically written. His inability to tell his own story seems a metaphor for the men who can’t relive their own horror stories by telling them.
Quill says: A Certain Summer is a story of mystery, love and redemption for all to ponder, but especially for those whose hearts have been wrenched by war.