Elizabeth Kelly’s new book (check it Henri, a female with two female names), “The Last Summer of the Camperdowns” is an engaging novel about a couple of blue-blooded families living in Cape Cod in the summer of 1974. The novel has a slowly unfolding murder mystery, a dose of politics, and some unique characters that make the novel worth reading.
The story is told from the perspective of Riddle James Camperdown (named after Jimmy Hoffa), a thirteen-year-old only child whose father is running for Congress and whose mother is a Oscar-winning actress. Riddle sees and hears a crime early on in the novel, and keeps her secret for the summer months as the mystery unfolds, the campaign develops, and the familial drama heightens.
Kelly does a nice job of showing Riddle struggling to be both a teenager and an adult. She is falling in love with an older boy, talking to her parents in almost unconvincing adult language, and learning the hard way that relationships and life is complicated. At the same time, her youth is evident—she is paralyzed by fear, takes to locking herself in her room, and exhibiting all sorts of petulant behavior one would expect from a kid. I was concerned that I would have trouble connecting to a novel with a thirteen-year-old girl as a narrator, but the book kept my attention and interest throughout.
Camp, the dad, is as big of a presence in the book as he is in his daughter’s life. He’s a well-drawn candidate with secrets. He’s intriguing and his relationship with his daughter is sweet. The mother, Greer, steals the novel. She’s a hardened actress with secrets of her own. She smokes incessantly, survives only by spewing sarcasm, and treats her daughter in a way that is at once horrible and caring. Her insults and banter makes it worth turning the page. Key to the book is what makes this woman so cold and unfeeling. In my mind, she is played by a young Kathleen Turner.
Kelly makes good use of the presumption that the rich and powerful are able to harbor deep dark secrets and keep that stiff upper lip. Like many other caricatures of the elite, the Camperdowns deflect real emotions in favor of passive aggression and coldness. I don’t know that it is totally realistic—at one point she even notes a character doesn’t in fact put his pants on the same way everyone else does—but it’s a good story.
There is a bit of Thomas Wolfe and Ethan Canin (“America, America”) influence in the characters and story in “The Last Summer of the Camperdowns.” I didn’t feel like the audience would be limited to females, but again, I had to get over the fact it was narrated by a young girl. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have picked up a book like that. But I’m trying to evolve.
The book is a good beach read—it won’t take you long to consume and you’ll be entertained by the story.
Thanks for reading.