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Fiction

The Home Front

Reviewed by Lizzie Skurnick
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page BW04

THE SUMMER GUEST

By Justin Cronin. Dial. 369 pp. $24

The telling moment in Justin Cronin's debut novel, the 2002 PEN/Hemingway award-winning Mary and O'Neil, occurs when the female half of the title heads out to terminate an unplanned pregnancy. Struck by the absence of a demonstration in front of the clinic, Mary Olson asks the receptionist, who is blithely spooning yogurt into her mouth, where they've all gone. Unruffled, the woman replies, "I think he usually goes to lunch at one o'clock." This is Cronin's signature -- an exchange that a less skilled writer might imbue with melodrama brings a head-clearing dose of the quotidian. That same impulse remains on display in the writer's second novel, The Summer Guest, a lyric chronicle ably spanning the distance between the gravitas of domestic heavyweights like Updike and Cheever and the studied, interwoven plotting of most book-club picks, without falling into the traps of either.

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The Summer Guest revolves around a Maine fishing camp that represents, for three generations of inhabitants, immersion into "a pure life, a pure world." The novel commences at the close of World War II; Joe Crosby Sr., a white-shoe Boston lawyer whose face has been shattered by a sniper's bullet in Italy, has abandoned his former life to run the camp and bring his son, Joe, and his wife, Amy, into "the very reduction he had come to claim." Over the years, they will be joined by others: Jordan, a fishing guide and "man of no account"; Lucy, a local girl who will grow to be Joe Jr.'s love and wife before Vietnam separates them; and, most important, Harry Wainwright, the financier whose offer to buy the camp before his death will bring them all back together; and Kate, Joe's daughter, who holds the key to what the back cover rather unfortunately refers to as "the last unopened door of the past."

The so-called secret can be teased out in the first few chapters -- but far more significant are the great pleasures to be found both in Cronin's prose and in his breadth of knowledge. One moment, we're lying on the ground with a group of WWII infantrymen, poised for tragedy: "Reynolds had seen something, Joe knew: a glint of light off a rifle scope, movement behind a window, camouflage being lifted off a mortar emplacement or the swinging barrel of an MG42." The next minute, we're in a boathouse, learning the ins and outs of slip fees, discussing a "1962 38-foot Chris-Craft Constellation with twin MerCruiser Blue Water 350s, totally restored with glossy teak from bowsprit to transom" with a man who has "a face like a piecrust and enough hair on his back to throw a shadow." Is Cronin a sailing and a WWII buff? Merely an expert channeler? Who knows? But such imagery and detail allow the engine of this novel to turn over and thrum.

Cronin also displays a great talent for what we can call, for lack of a better term, "emotional wisdom"; his characters dispense great truths as easily as Pez tablets. Discussing his relationship with Lucy, Joe comments, "when you've been married twenty years and spent most of this time as isolated as a couple of bears in the Yukon: a lot of what passes for discussion is really just taking in the scenery." Later, after Harry has offered to buy the camp, Joe observes, "somebody offers you something you suddenly can't live without, but five minutes ago never knew you needed -- well, there's a catch somewhere, the most obvious being that what feels like luck is actually somebody else's wand being waved over your life."

At times this unabashed lyricism can be hard to believe. At the close of the novel, Joe's daughter Kate finds herself giving birth at the camp with only Jordan the fishing guide to help her deliver. "I released my knees, felt the baby creep back up inside me. The pain was so vast it had become something else, a pain too large for one life, one person," she muses. "It filled me like a kind of love."

Are these the thoughts of a woman with a child halfway down her birth canal, in the middle of nowhere with only her fishing-guide husband to assist? Doubtful. Still, Cronin's unabashed skewing for joy when most authors would spill over into sentiment or only trace the callous missteps of love is brave and bold. The Summer Guest explores love as the binding agent of life, not the factor that pulls it apart. And damned if Cronin doesn't almost sell you on it. •

Lizzie Skurnick is a writer living in Baltimore.


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