A wonderful novel is like an orchid: smooth, creamy, full of unexpected crevasses. The more you look at it, the more surprising it is. “The Last Summer of the Camperdowns,” by Canadian writer Elizabeth Kelly, is like that, giving us characters you’ve never seen before, worlds we never knew, crimes we never thought of. Of course, some of us raise horses for the fun of it and run for Congress and may be bona fide movie stars, but not too many, and as purely escapist literature, “The Last Summer” works beautifully.
“That dear old house,” 33-year-old Riddle Camperdown recalls at the opening. “If there is a Heaven, I will spend eternity on the back porch, sipping iced tea and eating radish and mayonnaise sandwiches, listening to birds chirp, watching the mulberries ripen, hearing the waves roll in.” This enchanted place on Cape Cod is part of a large heritage property, perched on top of exquisite sand dunes. The house and the land around it are surely heaven, but the other way, looking out on the ocean, loom premonitions of discomfiture, disaster, even death.
Riddle takes us back to when she was 13, still a little kid. She has fire-engine-red hair and what must be a slightly goofy appearance, especially when measured against the astonishing good looks of her mother, Greer Foley, a retired movie star. Greer’s disposition is anything but beautiful, though. She’s Cruella de Vil, reincarnated. Her beauty is like the house, pure heaven, while her thoughts and deeds are hell. Her husband — the head of the family in name only — is known by the affectionate nickname Camp. He’s running for Congress, but earlier in life he was a biographer, historian and composer of failed off-Broadway plays.
And there they are, on this lovely property, where Camp spent his childhood years. Their next-door neighbor is Gin, a hysterical confirmed bachelor, much given to tantrums and tears, who breeds horses and lives off his mother’s handouts.
The year is 1972. Watergate has broken out, with all its sordid scandal and lies. Camp is running for office in good faith, but a neighbor, Michael Devlin, childhood friend of both his and Greer’s, returns from long travels with a book in hand, a memoir of his own good deeds in the war and Camp’s bad ones. This sends Camp into a dither, denying ahead of time anything that Michael might say, insisting he’s a born liar. The two men come to blows. Both of them accuse and deny. (Michael and Greer have an amorous history, which adds to the drama.)
But Riddle — pure, asexual, unformed — watches and doesn’t notice. She loves her house and their four basset hounds, who lounge around the place. One afternoon, chasing after a lost puppy, she finds herself in neighbor Gin’s stable: “Grabbing the mare’s mane, I hoisted myself onto her bare back, the foal looking on. . . . I lay down on her back, a human blanket, arms and legs extended downward, limp and defeated, my face pressed against her withers, soaking up her body heat even as she absorbed mine.” For a few moments she forgets the lost puppy, only to be terrified by what happens next: “Someone was running down the long stable corridor” — crying, panting, moaning, clearly dying. Riddle, listening, is found by the murderer, whom I won’t identify, although it’s plain to the reader before Page 50. The rest of the novel isn’t a whodunit, but a search for explanation. Why should such a terrible thing happen?
Riddle is almost literally scared out of her wits, since the murderer knows that she knows, and takes the opportunity at every turn to find her alone, to taunt her, break into her room and so on. Her parents remain sublimely oblivious: her mother totally into her own drama, and her father continually preening, in love with his own political dreams.
A terrible crime has been committed. Riddle, one of the sweetest creatures in contemporary literature, knows she should tell but can’t. (Watergate in the background is, of course, fantastically apropos.) What’s worse, the deed or the coverup? We’ll never really know. But this novel goes way past the question into the realm of really terrific fiction.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.
THE LAST SUMMER OF THE CAMPERDOWNS
By Elizabeth Kelly
Liveright. 383 pp. $25.95