A creekside cabin in summertime: it seems like the setting for a peaceful family gathering, unless the family is the one that Jen Michalski brings together in her moving and deftly crafted novel The Summer She Was Under Water. Its members include a physically and emotionally abusive father who is struggling with mental illness; a kind yet conflict-averse mother who has tried to look past the years of damage her husband has done; and two adult children—a long-estranged sister and brother—who share memories of their father’s abuse and of a taboo bond they formed in the wake of it.
The gathering at the family’s cabin threatens to be uncomfortable at best, explosive at worst. But because Michalski gets to the heart of the characters and their conflicts with such care and feeling, she offers more than a strife-laden drama. Instead, her novel is a complex exploration of family dysfunction, one that holds out a measure of hope.
The novel’s central character is the daughter and sister, Sam Pinski, who has come to the cabin for the first time in almost twenty years. A writer on break from her teaching, Sam imagines staying there for an indeterminate amount of time: “She’s now single. Her plans feel pretty open, in a crossroads kind of way.”
Sam has brought along a friend, Eve, whom Sam met at a coffee shop where Eve works as a barista. Another guest—unexpected by Sam—is her ex-fiancé, Michael, whom Sam’s mother has invited to the cabin out of hope that the couple might patch things up and move forward with their wedding plans. Instead, Michael’s presence only adds to the tensions.
But it’s Sam’s brother, Steve, a classic bad boy, who has the potential to cause the most trouble. At the start of the novel, Sam is uncertain whether he will be showing up at all. The prospect that he might makes her uncomfortable:
Sam’s fraught history with Steve isn’t the only thing that’s troubling her. She has written a novel that was inspired by this history, and she isn’t sure whether Steve has read it, or how he might react to its revelations. Although Sam’s novel might appear to be the opposite of autobiographical—the central character is a pregnant man—its focus on struggling with a dark and difficult past, and with secrets, makes it feel more than relevant.
Of course, Steve does show up at the cabin, reigniting tensions with his father, who had a long habit of lashing out against Steve and the other Pinskis; with Michael, of whom Steve never approved; and, of course, with Sam, who regards her history with Steve with anger and shame.
In a lot of ways, Steve comes across as a jerk, and one of his first acts upon arriving at the cabin is to give Michael an exceptionally rough towing on the family’s motorboat. But as the novel moves ahead, and back and forth in time, we get a more complex and sympathetic view of Steve: we see how he tried to protect Sam from some of the violent consequences of their father’s mental illness and alcoholism. We see, through Michalski’s thoughtful renderings of their characters and histories, how Sam and Steve became the people they are in the present, and how they continue to struggle with their pasts.
In certain respects the very structure of the novel—the way it weaves together the present and the past, and draws on excerpts from Sam’s surreal novel—echoes Sam’s process of mulling over her past, with all its conflicts and confusions, and her efforts to come to terms with it. Although The Summer She Was Under Water provides no neat resolutions, it offers hope that people can find ways to move forward with the realities of their lives, with or without each other.
It also does a beautiful job of connecting character and place, and Michalski’s descriptions bring everything to life. Early in the novel, Sam observes Steve swimming near the cabin:
As a final note, I want to praise the respectful way in which the novel handles class difference. Sam comes from a working-class family, and she appears to be the only Pinski to have graduated from college. In contrast, her ex, Michael, comes from wealth and privilege. Yet Michalski didn’t use this difference as the basis for a predictable type of drama—one in which, say, Sam is berated for being a college-educated snob by her family or looked down upon by Michael and his upper-crust family as a cultural or socioeconomic inferior. Her family, and also Michael and his family, simply seem to see her as she is: a smart, if conflicted, young woman who is worthy of their respect. Also, the Pinskis other than Sam aren’t made out to be fools or rubes to whom she can stand in contrast; the narrative respects them as well.
There’s also the endlessly insightful Eve, who brings home the too-often-neglected truth that intelligence, creativity, and the power to enlighten don’t necessarily depend on education or class status.
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ Novels about conflicted or dysfunctional families, such as Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
▪ Novels in which setting is central to the story
▪ Experimental or surreal fiction, especially works that contain stories within stories