Sunday 12 June 2011

Review - The Summer We Read Gatsby by Danielle Ganek

I just finished reading The Summer We Read Gatsby which I requested from the publisher, because I thought it looked interesting and fun, and I wasn’t wrong! It took me about a day to read, and was light-hearted, while managing to address many issues without getting bogged down by any of them. It got me wondering about books which reference other books or authors in their titles. By inserting something or someone well known into the immediacy of the title, surely the author must be aware that they are setting up some kind of expectation of similarity to or affiliation with, the author or book that they reference. It could be a risky move, potentially alienating some readers, in this case (and I can’t believe they exist, but am reliably informed that they do) Gatsby haters. Of course, the other side of the argument, as demonstrated by yours truly, is that people will see the word ‘Gatsby’ in the title, and think ‘oooohhh what’s that about?’ and go in for a closer look...  

*WARNING – This novel evoked lots of nostalgia and memories, many of which are included in this review*

Going into this, I was a little hesitant – I read ‘The Great Gatsby’ a lot of years ago, and if I’m honest it was the feelings conjured by the book, rather than specific characters and plotlines, which ingrained themselves into my memory. When I think about Gatsby, it’s summer and I am sitting in my college library: a huge room lined with shelves crammed full of books. Tucked away in the corner was this dusty little section marked ‘Classics’, and next to it was one solitary desk. Here I would sit, in the growing silence and the gathering gloom, until my workaholic best friend, returning from whatever study group she’d been at, would tap me on the shoulder, bringing me back to the world. I don’t think I even had to check out The Great Gatsby – the way I remember it, I read it in one sitting! My expectations of The Summer We Read Gatsby were that it would evoke similar feelings, and in this I was not disappointed.

It is a novel primarily about relationships, and has a very nostalgic feel to it; all long, sociable summer evenings, cocktails, mysteries, and flirtations, and was exactly the relief I was looking for after the unsettling and thought –provoking nature of Reading Lolita in Tehran.

The basic storyline is thus: Peck (Pecksland) and Cassie (mostly known as Stella) Moriarty are half sisters who have never really spent much time together, and seemingly don’t have much in common. Following the death of their eccentric Aunt Lydia, they are forced to live together for a month in Fools’ House, which has been left to them in her will, along with the cryptic request that they ‘seek the thing of utmost value’ from the house. Through parties and shopping trips, interventions and thievery, disagreements about clothes, men, the importance of books and whether or not to obey Lydia’s wishes and sell the house, Peck and Stella grow to know and love each other. The Summer We Read Gatsby is a story of sisterhood, and of the triumph of first love.

From what I’ve read of Fitzgerald, and admittedly my experience so far has been limited to Gatsby and Tender is the Night, a travesty which I plan to remedy this summer, his novels seem to be based around intense and passionate relationships, as was the case in this novel. Peck and Stella’s relationship is built on the interaction they had and the summers they spent with Aunt Lydia, and all the way through, the novel returns to the potential of past relationships, whether it is Peck’s first and only great love, Miles Noble, or Finn, the man that Stella is determined to hate.

I really enjoyed the book. It was light, fun, and had very likeable characters. I loved the way that Peck and Stella played off each other; Peck is hugely dramatic, confident, and glamorous (American), while Stella is much more reserved, withdrawn, and into her books (Foreign – read European). Being British, I enjoyed the feeling that being ‘foreign’ means being more introspective and obsessed with reading. I’m sure that this was unintentional on the part of the author, but it made me giggle. The mark of how much I enjoyed this book is in the fact that I keep wanting to go back to it to find passages, and quotes that I loved. I’m starting to think I should go back to reading with a pencil next to me...

My absolute favourite quote of the book is this one:

“every year she would send the summer reading list she always gave her class, and a box of books” p8

To me, the ultimate act of love that you can show a child is to try to develop their reading, and introduce them to new authors. Sending anybody an entire box of books every summer is just about the best thing I can imagine to do for a person.

One of the reasons I loved the novel so much is that for me, it was very evocative. The perfect reading experience of my life so far occurred in a similar way to the ‘box of books’ scenario. As a child, we used to go on holiday in the Devonshire countryside, to an old Victorian vicarage (read: mansion..) which my mum’s friend ran as a Bed and Breakfast after she and her husband retired from being schoolteachers. One summer, she turned her ‘spare’ living room (seriously, huge house!), into a reading room for me. It had a big sofa, and huge French windows that led out to the garden that seemed to go on forever, via a sloping hill. She had gathered up every book in her (and her friends’) houses suitable for my age (around eight or nine), and filled a huge bookcase with them, and best of all, none of my many siblings were allowed to read any of the books without asking me first! In my memory, that summer was blissful. I spent hours tucked in the corner of the sofa, bathed in sunlight, buried in a book. For some reason, reading The Summer We Read Gatsby, reminded me of that, and I’m immensely grateful.

Danielle Ganek’s style is beautiful, and the book is an absorbing and almost effortless immersion. It’s told primarily through Stella’s memories, and Peck’s stories, both of which are very vivid, and very biased. I liked the fact that the narrator doesn’t attempt to be subjective – throughout Stella talks about things very much from her point of view, and while the reader gets the impression that she is fairer than Peck would have been, she has obviously hazed over some details. The interesting thing about her as narrator is in the fact that she and Peck really don’t know each other that well. Because they had different mothers, both of whom split up from their father, the only time that they saw each other was at Fool’s House, and this is really the first time that they are doing any kind of bonding. It’s interesting because Stella is, in a sense, trying to tell Peck’s story without really knowing it.

The end of the book was really hopeful and quite funny. There’s a lot of drama throughout, which kept the story fresh and interesting. I also like the fact that Peck got to stick her oar in and give her version of events in the epilogue! I do take issue with her name – Pecksland doesn’t seem like the kind of name any mother would give their child, it took me a while to stop thinking of her as an obscure fruit tree, or an undiscovered island, if I’m honest – but it didn’t interrupt my enjoyment of the book especially.

The Summer We Read Gatsby is full of really quirky and likeable characters, who feel like people you could actually meet in reality and be friends with. It was a fun, nostalgic, dramatic, romantic, evocative, (there’s a big long list of adjectives for you!) and at times hilarious, tale of sisterhood, which I thoroughly enjoyed!

Rating: ****

The Summer We Read Gatsby was published in paperback May 2011. A review copy was provided to me by Plume.


  1. Hi, my name is Hanna and I am a Gatsby hater.

    To be fair though, I did immediately look up this book when you mentioned it on Twitter the other day.

  2. Oh my goodness,how?? To be fair, though, I don't actually remember the storyline too well :-P probably should re-read and stop being caught up in nostalgia!

  3. Well, my Librarything account tells me I labelled it as 'pointless!' I can't remember really, it just didn't seem to have a plot or decent characters so I just ticked it off mental list and forgot about it.

    It just seems so over-rated to be honest.

  4. Aha I see. So how you feel about Gatsby is how I feel about Thomas Hardy... :-P