But that ending!
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)
He could never have distinguished the rescued young orca of a week before from the rest of the pod, but there was no mistaking the slender figure poised on the slanting bluff that had long since been Joanna’s daffodil bed, before a tremor had sliced it in two. Lioness Lazos was standing there, not at all like a witch, arms raised to order tides and powers to her bidding, but as calmly as the great dorsals themselves: greeting, perhaps, but never commanding, even seeming at one point to wave them diffidently away. And still the orcas danced for her.
I can count the number of childhood favorites that have managed to hold up over time on one hand, and The Last Unicorn is of them. (The book and the animated film, which is a double rarity.) Up until Summerlong, it was also my only experience with Peter S. Beagle. I own several of his titles – The Innkeeper’s Song, The Line Between, Mirror Kingdoms; accumulated at garage and library sales, mostly – but so far they’ve been languishing in the middle of a ginormous TBR pile.
Summerlong is quite evocative of The Last Unicorn, yet still its own beast. It has the same quirky charm and dreamlike quality, but also feels much more adult. (Thanks in no small part to the older protagonists and copious – yet tasteful – sex scenes.) While the story does boast some wonderful elements – not the least of which is Beagle’s distinctive, fanciful writing – overall it fell a little short of my expectations. Which is perhaps a bit unfair: bound up as it is in all sorts of childhood feels and ’80s nostalgia, The Last Unicorn is maybe not the best (or most objective) reference point.
The story begins in February, with the arrival of a beautiful and mysterious stranger on Gardner Island. Lioness Lazos quickly and seamlessly integrates herself into island life, stumbling into a waitressing job at the Skyliner Diner – which is where Abe Aronson and his longtime girlfriend Joanna Delvecchio find her. Before the bill’s been settled, they have offered to let Lioness stay in Abe’s garage, rent-free. Being in close proximity to Lioness does that to a person: makes them take leave of their senses, and gladly so. She is, in a word, enchanting.
Lioness’s appearance on the island coincides with an early and gentle spring. The weather warms; flowers bloom; grass grows lush and verdant. It rains, but mostly only at night, when the residents of Gardner Island are tucked soundly in their beds. A pod of orcas swims perilously close to shore, seemingly dancing for Lioness. Abe’s Christmas brew – which, for years, has been a failure of epic proportions – is for once a delicious success. Most of this Abe and Joanna can chalk up to coincidence – that is, until the day Abe witnesses Jesse Yandell from next door pull a bouquet of flowers from under the soil and present it to a frowning Lioness, who makes him rebury it. When Abe goes digging for the flowers later, there’s nothing to be found.
Despite the strangeness of it all, Abe and Joanna want nothing more than to protect their new friend. For it’s clear that Lioness is on the run, from someone or something, and her troubles – much like her magic – threaten to infect the island.
I liked the story, but didn’t love it; found it enjoyable, but not especially memorable. The writing, especially surrounding Lioness and her earthly magic, is lovely, yet the plot is somewhat predictable. I won’t drop any spoilers, but you’ve definitely heard of Lioness.
** Caution: Spoilers ahead! **
I think some of my ambivalence is due to the ending. You don’t often see stories starring an older couple that’s been together for twenty-something years; more common are bodice-ripping romances featuring starry-eyed teenagers and young adults. Abe and Joanna’s relationship is rather refreshing: practical and comfortable, with neither party particularly interested in marriage or even cohabitation. They both have their own lives, yet also clearly care for one another. While they can get along just fine on their own, there’s also a fair amount of emotional codependence (and I don’t mean that in an unhealthy way); they’re best friends and also lovers. That I can even apply that term – lovers – to people who are 65 and 56, respectively, is kind of awesome.
So yeah, I was pretty pissed when Abe cheated on Joanna – truly, I did not see that coming – and despite my general rule that literary ladies should always kick philandering men to the curb, part of me wanted to see them reconcile. Especially since they shared this one, gigantic, life-altering secret.
I suppose there’s an argument to be made that both parties blossomed after the dissolution of their partnership: Abe finding his passion in playing harmonica with local blues band Simply Blue, and Joanna finally overcoming her fear of water to take up kayaking. Yet it’s not entirely clear to me why they couldn’t have done this before; there’s almost nothing in the story to suggest that they stifle each other. idk, maybe I’m missing something?
** End of spoilers! **
Otherwise, I wasn’t always feeling it. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why, so perhaps I’ll just chalk it up to “not for me.” But longtime Peter S. Beagle fans will most likely enjoy it.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Of Sicilian descent, Joanna Delvecchio is described as “short and dark,” with olive skin. Her twenty-eight-year-old daughter Lily is gay and in love with Lioness. It’s unclear whether Persephone-in-disguise also harbors romantic feelings for Lily, or if her love is more platonic; we only ever see her sleep with men (Hades, Abe). Lily once tried to commit suicide after a breakup.
Joanna suffered a miscarriage when Lily was twelve. Abe Aronson is Jewish and has been dating Joanna for twenty-something years. Up until Lioness upends their relationship, it seems to be very solid: practical and comfortable, with both partners maintaining their own residences yet very involved in each others’ lives. They have a healthy sex life, which is refreshing to see between two older adults (Joanna is 56 and Abe is 65-going-on-66).
Lioness claims to have been born in the Aegean islands; her mother has “dusty-golden skin” and, according to Lioness, her father was a Greek businessman. Of course, she’s lying: she’s really Persephone, daughter of the earth goddess Demeter.
Tamara, Joanna’s unofficial lieutenant on the flight crew, is a black woman in her mid-thirties. Grace, another flight attendant on Joanna’s team, is Vietnamese.
Seriously Blue’s rhythm guitarist is blind and an alcoholic.
Animal-friendly elements: Not really. Lioness comforts a young orca who was separated from her pod, and later the entire family comes back to do a little water dance for Lioness in thanks.