Blogged at River City Reading
I often find myself repeating my preference for well written, intriguing characters over those I find to be likable but stereotypical. Thankfully, many authors are able to blend likability with intrigue, but it has been a long time since I've seen it done with the talent shown by Elizabeth Kelly in The Last Summer of the Camperdowns.
In the summer of 1972, 12-year-old Riddle James Camperdown begins to realize that her father Godfrey, affectionately known as Camp, running for Congress will mean big changes for her family. Not only will her ex-movie star mother, Greer, be hosting endless parties in their Cape Cod home, but Riddle will now be thrown into the public eye. What Riddle doesn't realize is how much will change when her neighbor Charlie Delvin goes missing and she chooses to keep the evidence she discovers a secret. Plagued by her decision, Riddle must watch as her own family's secrets are exposed, seemingly tangled in lies from the past.
With their thoroughbred horses and hired help, the characters in The Last Summer of the Camperdowns don't necessarily sound appealing. In fact, from the eyes of 12-year-old Riddle, few of them are. But Elizabeth Kelly brings each character to life with such vivid language, it is almost possible to hear the tones of their voices and see the subtle shades of their hair.
"Dunhill cigarette in hand, her sixth finger, she straightened up and exhaled in my direction, a plume of silky smoke winding through her yellow hair like a gray ribbon. I breathed in deeply of her sophistication, imprinting forever that angular and archly feminine aesthetic native to her but elusive to me."
As the novel progresses, it becomes more clear that each character offers a different, sometimes evolving, element to the story. Michael Delvin, Greer and Camp's longtime friend, brings with him tension and stress, while horse trainer Gula serves as a source of more genuine fear. Those emotions are offset by the funny banter between snarky Greer and struggling Riddle, who endlessly seeks her mother's approval despite her best efforts to act otherwise.
"Sometimes I think we only imagine ourselves. It's hard sometimes, coming face-to-face with your truer nature -- the part that you conceal, even from yourself."
At its core, The Last Summer of the Camperdowns is a novel of self-discovery, honesty and forgiveness. However, the path Elizabeth Kelly takes to the final reveal is fantastically developed and well written, combining bits of Gothic fiction with more modern American wit.