Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review: Rainy Lake by Mary Rockcastle

Little did I realize as I sit here at my own cottage that this novel takes place over several successive summers at a lake cottage. I'm certain that that description so many years ago was a major selling point for me in buying the book but it's been so very long since I bought it and consigned it to the unread bookshelves that I had forgotten. I have a deep and abiding love for our own summer place so there are very few things more appealing to me to read than something set in a similar place. The fact that this book also hints at darker themes does nothing to diminish the appeal even as I hope that none of the darkness looming in this novel ever pervades my own summer idyll.

Danny is a young teenager when her family decides to stop renting at Rainy Lake and to invest in a cottage of their own. Her mother falls for a slightly ramshackle home, trusting that her architect husband will be able to repair and renovate the place. And at first that is what happens. But the pressures of the times start to wear on everyone and the undercurrents threaten to swamp the family. Danny's father is unhappy at his firm and leaves to start his own business. Her adored older brother, extremely liberal in his thinking (he is furious when the local community club automatically votes to exclude a black family and he is adamantly against the Vietnam War), becomes as unbendingly rigid as those idealogues whom he opposes. Unable to hide his growing contempt for their father's compromises and increased drinking, he is growing angrier and more distant from the family. Their mother holds desperately to some new semblence of normal, trying to weather the brewing storm and make it through to calm waters.

Told in Danny's voice through several summers, the book skips through life at home, showing flashes of the discord that, at least in the beginning, dissipates once they hit Rainy Lake. But even the magic of the summer and the lake cannot hold off the rising tension that threatens to take them all under. Not only does the novel detail the disintegrating family but it also captures Danny's coming of age from the first time she lays eyes on Billy Dove, the half black, half white boy who challenges her brother's and friends' proclaimed color-blindness, to the day when she says goodbye to Rainy Lake as she prepares to leave for college.

There is a lot of humor in the telling of this book, despite the themes of racism, alcoholism, the rightness of the Vietnam War, and how liberalism can ultimately fail when embodied in people who only know privilege. Danny's desire to protect the nesting bats who have been in their cottage far longer than they have will ring true for anyone who has ever inhabited an old home. And her mother's raging fear of those same bats, driving her to sleep under the covers with her hair wound into a bath towel will make many summer home denizens chuckle.

Rockcastle has managed to evoke the halcyon days of summer on a lake while still showing the ways in which the lake is not as insulated from the outside world as a young teenager might perhaps think. And when the completely unthinkable happens and anger and tragedy and grief invade the idyll, Rockcastle has managed to be completely pitch perfect. This a coming of age in a time when so much roiled beneath the surface and so much more wasn't spoken about and yet through her wonderful and insightful narrator, we, the readers, are privy to not only the adult takes on each issue but the uncomplicated and innocent children's view as well. This is a wonderful read at any time but is particularly apt right now in the hazy, lazy days of summer.

This review is part of the Spotlight Series to spotlight books published by Graywolf Press.


  1. You're reading a book about a cottage at your cottage--love the verisimilitude! This book sounds moody and mysterious--perfect for August.

  2. Wow, great review! Not sure why the cover and title do not invoke humor for me, though I am glad the book had funny moments, too :-)

    Thanks a lot for participating! Glad the series helped you get a book off the TBR!


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