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Washington Post Book World
Friday, June 15th, 2007
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The Last Summer (of You and Me)

by Anne Brashares

First Love

A review by Kim Edwards

For many of us, there's a place -- a beach or a farm or the cold, clear waters of a lake -- where we locate our nostalgia for lost summers. For the characters in Ann Brashares's The Last Summer (of You and Me), this place is Fire Island. Here, sisters Riley and Alice and their neighbor Paul have spent the summers of their childhoods, maintaining a fierce loyalty to each other through the turbulence of adolescence and the encroachments of adult realities. Fire Island has been a separate reality, a place apart.

Now in their 20s, they have converged here for a final summer. All these characters frequently seem younger than their stated ages. Riley, 24, has never fully made the transition to adulthood. Gifted in sports, "effortlessly expert at skateboarding, sailing, running fast, coaxing a fish off of any line," she has remained strangely close to her childhood world, even as her peers have grown up and moved on. Alice, at 21, is looking toward law school, not because she wants to be a lawyer but because it's the next dutiful step. Paul, who lives in the big house that blocks their ocean view -- sometimes with his wealthy, narcissistic, mother and more often alone -- has been Riley's best friend, her match in physical daring and something of an older brother to Alice. These three have always wandered the island together. This year, however, Paul and Alice upset the equilibrium by falling in love.

The first part of the novel focuses largely on their romance, a giddy first love for them both that they try to keep secret because it threatens established loyalties. Immersed in their pleasures, Alice and Paul don't spend much time considering Riley. However, when Riley becomes suddenly and seriously ill, Alice's latent guilt emerges all at once. She rushes from the island to the hospital to find Riley with congestive heart failure. Here, Riley extracts a promise: Alice will not tell Paul about her damaged heart. Alice agrees to this with surprising swiftness, giving up both Paul and her plans for law school in an instant. She moves back home with her parents and helps care for Riley for the following year, a strained, uneasy re-creation of their childhood.

It's a compelling premise, this struggling between loyalties, between the different demands of love, but Brashares falters in establishing the connections between these characters that would make it convincing. The narrative is revealed primarily by Alice and Paul -- theirs is the most deeply drawn relationship in this triangle, and their romance is both the catalyst of change and the novel's focus. Riley, however, remains a shadowy, isolated figure. Other characters share opinions and memories of Riley, but she's rarely present in important scenes, and her point of view surfaces infrequently. Since Riley shares with Paul a secret from the past -- a secret more or less withheld from the reader until late in the book -- the brevity of her scenes seems like manipulation. And since Riley knows about her sister's affair with her best friend, her request that Alice lie to Paul makes Riley unsympathetic, despite the gravity of her illness.

Moreover, when Riley gets sick, Alice's profound guilt and unhesitating sacrifice are difficult to believe. Alice's decision seems abstract, without the force of emotional conviction. Likewise, because Riley's perspective isn't fully explored -- because it's not clear what Riley wants, aside from a return to the status quo -- her actions in response to her failing heart are puzzling. Riley's rebellion against the restrictions of her illness, her running and swimming and pushing of limits, all make sense, but her persistence in subverting treatment for her damaged heart does not. Riley loves her freedom, yes, and she's uneasy in the world of adults. But is this enough for her to risk her life?

By the end, the characters have suffered losses, and their links to their childhoods have disappeared or been discarded; they can no longer inhabit the Fire Island they knew, except in memory. As Alice notes when she meets Paul again: "They'd been stripped down since last summer....Last time, they'd been hiding out in their alternate universe, like fugitives or wary secessionists....Now they were with the world again. It was less privileged, maybe, but at least it connected them to the future." It's a hopeful ending, in the way of fairy tales; hope, like nostalgia, dreams of a distant time without dwelling too closely on the details. Despite its serious themes The Last Summer (of You and Me) is full of optimism and too neatly resolved. But it's steeped in the familiar longings for lost time that readers seeking the carefree pleasures of a summer will enjoy.

Kim Edwards is the author of The Memory Keeper's Daughter.


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