The title of this book was fitting for the weather I endured while reading it. I was elated when I was contacted by the author to read and review this book. It was the first that had happened and I felt grateful for the opportunity. I was also curious since the story is about a small town that receives a visit from the devil during its hottest summer.
Fielding Bliss has never forgotten the summer of 1984: the year a heat wave scorched Breathed, Ohio. The year he became friends with the devil.
Sal seems to appear out of nowhere – a bruised and tattered thirteen-year-old boy claiming to be the devil himself answering an invitation. Fielding Bliss, the son of a local prosecutor, brings him home where he’s welcomed into the Bliss family, assuming he’s a runaway from a nearby farm town.
When word spreads that the devil has come to Breathed, not everyone is happy to welcome this self-proclaimed fallen angel. Murmurs follow him and tensions rise, along with the temperatures as an unbearable heat wave rolls into town right along with him.
As strange accidents start to occur, riled by the feverish heat, some in the town start to believe that Sal is exactly who he claims to be.
While the Bliss family wrestles with their own personal demons, a fanatic drives the town to the brink of a catastrophe that will change this sleepy Ohio backwater forever.
It took a while for me to get into the story because of its slow pace. Fielding, the protagonist, takes his time in telling us about the scorching summer he endured as a boy in his hometown, Breathed (pronounced “breathe” but with the “-ed” added), and the writing is very descriptive, which further slowed the story’s pace. So though this book is only 320 pages long, I took a while to read it.
“The moment I fell, my wings wilted like roses left too long in the vase. The misery of the bare back is to live after flight, to be the low that will never again rise. I would die anew just to fly again. I would kill God for a pair of wings.”
I admire McDaniel’s writing and how she describes things. She is first a poet and that shows in The Summer That Melted Everything, her debut novel. Sometimes the characters, especially Sal, would speak in a way that’s unbelievable to me because it sounds more like poetry rather than a kid responding to a question. I think instances like that make it hard to believe that Sal isn’t more than just a boy. However, I think sometimes the descriptive writing got in the way of the plot’s pace. Much as I admired it, the writing turned me off sometimes because it was as if I had to wade through more and more words before the story would continue.
But, McDaniel’s descriptions will pull you into the story and envelop you in the story’s atmosphere. Sometimes I felt as if the heat of the town was radiating from the book. I swear I felt hotter while reading it and it didn’t help that my part of the world was also enduring a heat wave as I read along. I could almost believe the heat I endured affected people like what occurs in the story because I seriously can’t believe people are supporting Donald Trump’s campaign for the American presidential race, but anyways, I’m off topic.
The plot is interesting. It’s as if McDaniel got a bunch of characters together, threw them into an extreme circumstance (the hot weather), gave them a hint of an idea (the devil’s in town in the form a Black boy), and wrote about her observations of what happens through Fielding’s reflections. As the story progresses, the crises become worse and worse as the town gets hotter and its people are riled into a mob propelled by Elohim’s hatred of Blacks. This all culminates in such a harrowing event that the townspeople are scarred by it.
Fielding certainly was scarred by the events of that summer. It became a burden that affected all aspects of his life. He is an unlikable character and after reading, I tried to puzzle out if it’s the awful childhood event that makes him so unlikable or if the heat of that summer heightened a trait in him to made him unlikable. He is a cranky old man and a drunk when older, and it seems that he was a good kid when younger, before the 1984 summer. But during that summer, he did and said things that made me question his motives.
“Pressure to be that hero, that god who could be only at the sacrifice of his true self. Sometimes I think older brothers should not be allowed. We fall in love with them too much. They are our everything, all the while, they hurt out of sight for our sake.”
**Spoilers in this paragraph. ** Fielding’s fight with his older brother, Grand, was a poignant moment. It made me angry, sad, and frustrated. Through Grand, the story touches on homophobia and how religion and the Bible is sometimes used to condemn homophobic relationships. I felt bad for both characters while reading: Fielding, because his brother was no longer a god he could worship and because he was so rooted in his society’s strictures that he could not empathize with Grand and accept him as who he is; and Grand, because he lost the close relationship he had with his brother and was stuck in a town that doesn’t know him and would never try to. I couldn’t help feeling bad for Grand and I was upset with how his story ended. I just knew something horrible would happen. **End of spoiler territory. **
Elohim, who I mentioned above, is Fielding’s neighbor. A short, odd White man who Fielding looked up to as a mentor, almost like a father. He is one of the most important characters in the novel because through him a variety of topics on racism, religion, and psychology are explored. I was especially attuned to the novel’s commentary on groupthink, which is explored through Elohim’s influence on the townspeople.
**Spoilers. ** I didn’t like how this part ended and didn’t agree with Fielding’s father, Autopsy, representing Elohim’s followers in court. Basically, the story also looks at the various ways evil appears in the world and how our background and perception of things color our opinions of what is good and what is evil. That’s why Autopsy Bliss invited the devil to town: to see for himself. Well, when the “devil,” Sal, appeared, the town exercised its rage on him but they were coerced by Elohim’s hatred of Blacks. Autopsy represented the townspeople in court to absolve them of their heinous acts because they were caught up in the moment and greatly influenced by Elohim. I didn’t agree with that.
I think even then people are still responsible for their actions and should suffer the punishments for their actions. Sure Elohim is responsible for what occurred, but the blame should not be laid on one man. He wouldn’t have gained influence if the people didn’t allow themselves to be swept up in what he said and it’s possible that some of his followers joined the group out of peer-pressure or because they already shared his beliefs so they should all be punished. 😦 I was grumpy after reading that part. Anyways… **end of rant and spoiler territory. **
The last character I’ll discuss is Sal. Funny enough, I don’t have much to say about Sal. He didn’t stand out to me and I didn’t believe him to be the devil either, but I love that McDaniel leaves that decision up to the readers. She hints at things and Sal tends to pop up at the worst moments, so it’s easy to think he could be the devil. My problem with Sal’s character, though, is that he is the only prominent Black character in a story that focuses on racism but we don’t hear much from him on the topic.
The way Sal talks and acts, so unlike a teenage boy sometimes, made me see him more as a plot device rather than a believable character. I got the impression that his skin color was included to make him stand out more and add more tension in the story because it took a while before I realized he was Black (maybe I’m just slow). But, all those issues aside, I do like the insight he sometimes provides for Fielding and that he’s the only one who’s able to see the true nature of the townspeople. He is the only selfless character in the book. Then again, some readers might take issue with that as well because Sal does seem to function like a “magic Negro” most times (just saying).
Overall: ★★★☆☆ 1/2
The Summer That Melted Everything is a well-written, descriptive debut novel. I don’t think it will be to everyone’s taste since it takes a while for the story to get interesting and the pace is slow, but I think it is well worth the read for the imagery and the topics it touches on.
I see that a few people on Goodreads have categorized it as magical realism and I have to disagree with that. The story didn’t strike me as magical realism. The atmosphere of the novel hints at magical realism and so too McDaniel’s descriptions, but there’re no extraordinary circumstances in the book. Even if Sal is the devil, I still wouldn’t call this magical realism. It’s a literary novel that leans toward horror or thriller… actually, I would more call it gothic. But magical realism? Nah, I wouldn’t say it is.
Quotes from the book:
“It’s a gasoline betrayal when the romance of your lover becomes a separate energy from you. It lessens your significance as lover. As man.”
“’You know, some people’ — he looked off into the distance — ‘you love them because they remind you of the best moments of your life.’”
Other reviews and interviews:
Brittany’s Goodreads Review (goodreads.com)
Author Interview: Tiffany McDaniel (aboutabookreviews.com)
The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel (aimalfarooq.wordpress.com)
Review | The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel (clairehuston.wordpress.com)
ARC Review: The Summer That Melted Everything (rantandraveaboutbooks.com)
Book Review: The Summer That Melted Everything (neverimitate.wordpress.com)
One on One w/ Orsayor: Author Tiffany McDaniel (bookreferees.org)