The Last Summer of the Camperdowns by Elizabeth Kelly

The Last Summer of the CamperdownsThe summer Riddle James Camperdown turns thirteen is The Last Summer of the Camperdowns. Not a house, as I guess from the cover, but a family composed of daughter Riddle (named after labor union leader James Riddle Hoffa), cold and sneering ex-actress Greer, and the famed labor historian/Broadway composer turned political candidate Godfrey “Camp” Camperdown. That summer, as Camp runs for the House of Representatives in protest of the Vietnam War and the erupting Watergate scandal, Riddle and Greer are dragged into endless campaigning that only gets worse as a tragedy occurs in their neighborhood bringing long-buried family secrets to the surface.

Despite their strained relationship, Greer and Riddle find common ground in their mutual love for horses and hounds, and frequently visit their neighbor Gin’s stables. Gin, a lifelong bachelor living off his mother’s handouts, is obsessed with breeding Irish Gypsy horses and has recruited horse-hand Gula Nightjar to help him. Gula gives Riddle the creeps, even before she uncovers evidence that he committed a brutal murder and then stalks her to enforce her silence. As Riddle struggles to understand what she witnessed and fears to reveal her knowledge, her world is also shaken by the arrival of the Devlins, another blue-blooded family consisting of Greer’s ex-flame and Camp’s ex-best friend Michael and his handsome son Harry, who becomes Riddle’s friend and first crush. From all of the above, her emotions are in turmoil and the consequences of her secret-keeping become more dire.

Riddle frustrated me extensively. I didn’t have a problem with her language as other readers did because of its maturity and linguistic style (extensive use of metaphors and similes particularly), since I got the impression that the adult Riddle was making the memory more lyrical in its retelling. But 13 year-old Riddle did vascillate between acting/demanding to be treated like an adult and childishness to a ridiculous extent. I understand that it was a time of growth and transition for her, but a character initially billed as a good listener and a fighter seemed to ignore what was going on around her and retreat into herself incomprehensibly.

I get that she was scared of the repercussions of telling the truth about the crime she observed in the barn, because she was confused about the situation and fearful of ending up in the same deceased condition. However, I kept wanting to shake her and make her ‘fess up. The middle of the story got repetitious as concerned adults asked her what was wrong and she burst into tears, refusing to tell. Obviously these people want to know the truth, and obviously she had a good relationship with her father if not her mother, so I can’t comprehend why she didn’t say something sooner. It got creepier as she befriended Harry and stole Charlie’s belongings – I could no longer sympathize with her. For all her protestations about her mother’s lack of a moral compass, apparently the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

However, I did (mostly) enjoy the supporting characters, including adult Riddle. Under Greer’s caustic barbs and Camp’s bluster,  I could feel their love for each other and Riddle. While Michael Devlin was basically the rich bad-boy poster child, I appreciated that Harry was such an upright and affable love interest. Gin was the perfect sniveling t0ady, for whom I did have slight empathy because of his incorrigibly gossipy mother Mirabel.  The villain Gula was sinister without being a caricature, and I appreciated that his motives had a real, if twisted, explanation.

On the plus side, and once again being judgey about covers, I thought this one fit perfectly – beachy and nostalgic, capturing the essence of the book of remembrance and an idyllic summer that is no longer within reach. The setting was such a strong presence within the novel from the towering dunes of the Cape to the wild crashing of the waves to the dark and deadly forest. Set in Wellfleet, Massachusetts in 1972, the place exuded  an old-world spirit that even seemed outdated for that time and location, with its cigarette-smoking sultry rich folk and fox hunting soirees, simply because I can’t fathom people like  that. This is one area where Kelly’s writing style triumphed by creating a vivid mood that made the tale come alive (and made me think this would make for a good movie). Yet, the central “mystery” didn’t quite live up to the American Gothic atmosphere.

really wanted to like this book. Unfortunately, the weakness of the protagonist ruined it for me. Even she admits that “Crying had become [her] job for the summer.” (pg.342) It’s sad when Vera the basset hound trumps her owner in character. In some ways, this reminded me of The Great Gatsby, with its preoccupation with the foibles of the wealthy, and it also had similarities to The Chocolate Money, which I’ve previously reviewed, in that both the main characters lack the backbone to be the good people they want to be. I would recommend it as a cautionary tale, but not a beach read  – it felt like the dark days as summer wanes and the seasons change and the life ahead looks dimmer than it did in June.

3 Stars

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