When I was given David Nicholls’ Sweet Sorrow in early September 2020, I panicked. Could I read it? All 390 pages, in just one week (my rough estimation of how long that summer might last)? I decided against taking the risk and placed it next to my bed. William Boyd’s Trio soon joined it, my annual pile of “books set in summer, to be read only in summer” gradually rising. There’s something transformative in reading about stifling heat whilst experiencing it; about looking up at a clear blue sky, hearing the bees, scratching the mosquito bites, sinking barefoot into soft sand. Saving books for summer offers a reward for patience, waiting for just the right moment to savour something delicious. And so, while holiday destinations this summer are uncertain, the power of words to transport remains undisputed.
I’ve been to LA twice, both times stifled by its hot, dry breath, the sort that lingers well into the night so that sleeping outdoors – as Maria does in Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays – seems a sensible option: “...she told herself that she was sleeping outside just until it was too cold to sleep beneath beach towels, just until the heat broke, just until the fires stopped burning in the mountains, sleeping outside only because the bedrooms in the house were hot, airless.... Sleep was essential if she was to be on the freeway by ten o’clock.” The last time I went, when I was 22, LA was a playground of potentiality. Like Maria’s freeway (she drives for distraction, to forget that her life is falling part – it absorbs “all her reflexes, all her attention”). It offered a temporary sanctuary, the last pitstop stop of a three-month trip after university, before I needed to come home and decide what to do with my life.
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There are very few similarities between Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow (set in Campania) and a trip to Tuscany for a friend’s wedding, but I wish I’d read it during that holiday, if only for the setting: a group of friends spending the summer in an Italian castle, lying lizard-like by the pool, riding into the village for provisions. In Tuscany, we’d arrived at our hotel, perched above the motorway, bedrooms smelling of cigarette smoke. Seeing our disappointment, one friend got back in the car, taking another friend with him. After 40 minutes, they returned with directions for us to follow. They led us to a beautiful, isolated farmhouse with four rooms. There were about 10 of us, but we made it work - sharing beds, moving mattresses onto the floor. The owners were delighted, showing us the pool - big, with mismatched furniture - and the restaurant. Just in time for freshly made ravioli.
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When Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse was published in 1955, a review in The Spectator called it “a vulgar, sad little book.” Yes, it’s sad and little, but it’s also a brilliant story of boredom, freedom, love and jealousy, set in the French Riviera and narrated by 17-year-old Cécile, whose indulgent and carefree summer is interrupted by the arrival of her father’s lover. One late summer, eager for a last swim of the year, my boyfriend (now husband) and I booked a weekend to Nice; taking the train or bus along the coast, we hopped on and off at various beaches. Including the pretty Villefranche-sur-Mer, with its bougainvillea trailing down the railway arches to the town’s beach and an unnamed spot near Cap Ferrat: a tiny, pebbly beach, all the while pampered crowds enjoyed private, sectioned-off stretches.
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I read Mary Wesley’s novel at the beginning of last summer, in my garden in London. I vividly remember losing myself in the book and appreciating how rare those fleeting moments are; unperturbed by chat around me, my neighbours, incessant home improvements. Instead, I felt the sun on my legs and escaped to Cornwall, reading about Sophy “lying on her stomach along the branch of the Ilex tree… A perfect view across the lawn to the cliff running down to the cove, and of the path winding along the contours of the coast a few feet from the drop to the sea, calm this hot August day.” The magic of the opening 50 pages took me back to childhood holidays: of sandy beaches, neighbouring, grazing cows and sheep, dramatic cliff tops, occasional rain. And, of course, pasties.
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This isn’t a novel, but instead, two long poems about the Mediterranean. #Afterhours by Inua Ellams is an anthology of response poems to original works published between 1984 (when he was born) and 2002 (when he turned 18). Staying close to the originals in topic, structure and syntax, Inua reset each poem to tell a story about his childhood. I love the stark contrasts (within the experiences) and similarities (the pull of the sea) of Still at Sea by Sarah Maguire and Still at Sea #After Sarah Maguire by Inua, who used Sarah’s poem to reflect on the first time he flew over the Mediterranean Sea. Sarah’s reference to Céfalu takes me back to my honeymoon in Scopello in Sicily, swimming in and around, and under, incredible rock formations at Tonnara - an old tuna fishery – and snacking on bottarga sandwiches.
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I’m not sure a novel better reflects a summer of love than André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name: “our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once [...] and before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now there's sorrow. I don't envy the pain. But I envy you the pain.” I envy it too, the intensity of Elio and Oliver’s relationship - erudite expressions of love and hate, moods reflected by the colour of swimming trunks, juicy peaches, all against the backdrop of an Italian summer. Simply, perfect.
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