There are times when I grab a book, knowing very little about in, and read/listen to it because I needed something and it was available at my library. Not too long ago I was traveling to some not-so-exotic location for work. I had a drive ahead of me and needed a quick audio book to download and enjoy (I also listen to them to help increase my books read each year because I’m competitive and hate it when my friends reach their challenge before me).
That’s how I discovered “That Summer” by Lauren Willig. It was audio and it was available in the historical fiction section. I wish I could say I had a gut feeling about the wonderful story I was going to discover.
Turns out it is a dual time period book. I’m a sucker for dual time period. Willig weaves together two stories, one in 1849 and one in 2009. The modern story centers on Julia Conley and her life, which isn’t going anywhere fast. Her mother died when she was young. Her relationship with her father and stepmother isn’t great. She’s lost her job and can’t find another. Then she inherits a house in London from an aunt she didn’t even know. What does she have to lose? She hops on a plane and heads across the pond where she meets family she hasn’t seen in over twenty years and uncovers a family history that sucks her into a mystery and a hunt for the family treasure.
The story in 1849 focuses on the miserable life of Imogene Grantham. Stuck in a loveless marriage for ten years, she plunges into a relationship with an artist who visits her husband’s house one evening.
I can’t imagine it’s easy to write dual time period stories; weaving together two time periods which are so very different and making connections with items, emotions or parallel tales. Even harder? Making sure both stories are engrossing. Willig achieves at both. While it was easier for me to connect to Julia because of her modern setting and sensibilities, I was drawn into Imogene’s plight with the same level of intensity.
Each woman faces the desire for rebirth from a situation that seems hopeless. And Willig really makes you feel the deep well of emotion for both Julia and Imogene. In the end, I think Imogene’s story made me feel the most claustrophobic. This makes sense because, well, I am a modern woman. Her lack of control over her world made me angry at moments. And, I’m pretty sure, that’s what Willig wanted the reader to feel.
The theme of rebirth is given an interesting treatment in “That Summer.” I think it may be one of the reasons I enjoyed the book so much. Each woman, Julia and Imogene, must face it. There is fork in their proverbial roads and learning how each comes to terms with their past mistakes and decides to move forward made for a fascinating read. And Willig offered surprise results for these women. I won’t spoil the surprises. Needless to say, things weren’t easy for our main characters.
There were moments when a couple of characters fell a little flat for me, but they weren’t central to the story. Other characters, not Imogene or Julia, did leap from my speakers as the narrator read “That Summer.” Willig captured the zest for life and art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1849. She also created a nuanced and complicated relationship for Julia with her father. So, while a character may have felt a little flat on occasion, the characters who mattered came to life for me.
The ultimate lesson I learned? Venture off the “to be read” list everyone in a while and see what books chance throws my way.