In Norris Church Mailer's debut, the muggy summer heat of Sweet Valley, Arkansas, mingles with an acrid smell of vinegar and onions at its pickling plant. An engaging, richly painted coming-of-age novel set in the late 1960s, Windchill Summer portrays the exploration and confusion of the times through a group of small-town friends caught up in a big-time web of intrigue and murder. Cherry Marshall has just turned 21 and is preparing for her final year of college when her sheltered existence is turned upside down by the murder of a high school friend. Until the discovery of Carlene's drowned body, life for Cherry had been an easy mix of university art studies, thrice-weekly meetings of the First Apostolic Holiness Church of God (part of the "real Don't religion" you would expect to find in an alcohol-dry Arkansas county), and summer jobs spent pickling cucumbers with her best friend, Baby, a Southern-assimilated Filipino, or "Filbilly." But Carlene's murder kicks off a summer of strange events and even stranger revelations. And as the craziness of the Vietnam War and the haziness of hippie-living begin to seep into Sweet Valley life, Cherry finds a whole new world taking shape around and within her: "I felt an excitement like the pioneers must have felt, knowing they were starting a whole new way of life." The territory she plows isn't quite so virgin, mind you, and many lives are wrecked, transformed, and renewed before the book's climax.
Mailer captures the tone of her young characters, and she writes revealingly of the pull and power of secrets and hypocrisy, of the few options and desperate choices of those caught on the underside of "proper" society. While Cherry tells her tale in the first-person voice, her friends' stories are relayed through Mailer's omniscient third-person voice. This double narrative is somewhat awkward, but the author's expressive style makes up for the oddity. She describes Carlene as a child who had been "prickly and serious, sturdy and pale, with freckles sprinkled on her skin like nutmeg on eggnog," and she tells the story of the local embalmer's wife who, before she died, had Polaroids taken of herself "lying down in various coffins and outfits until she decided on the one she liked. At the funeral, everyone said she had never looked better." Readers will inevitably look for the influence of the author's husband, but this half of the duo tells a captivating story in a voice all her own. --S. Ketchum
From Publishers Weekly
The breezy, lighthearted tone of this debut novel immediately captures the reader's attention, but its guilelessness conceals a sophisticated, multifaceted evocation of the consequences of the Vietnam War, played out in the small town of Sweet Valley, Ark. What Cherry and her best friend, Baby, assume will be an ordinary summer before their senior year at college in 1969 veers abruptly off-course when a childhood friend, Carlene, is found beaten and drowned in the local lake. Everyday life lurches, then ambles on: at night, Cherry and Baby earn pocket money by peeling onions at the pickle plant, where Cherry meets Tripp, a Vietnam veteran who hails from Berkeley and who introduces her to all that name implies. Cherry develops a healthy doubt about the fire-and-brimstone faith in which she was raised ("It was scary how good I was getting at sin"). She also gradually comes to understand the way Carlene's murder has shaken the town, a place already shocked by the return from Vietnam of irrevocably altered hometown boys and haunted by those who didn't come back, like Carlene's ex-boyfriend, Jerry. Viewpoints intricately intermingled give voice to the thoughts, emotions and many secrets of a variety of compelling characters, through depictions of Baby and her family, the only Filipinos in Sweet Valley; throughflashbacks to Carlene's tumultuous childhood; through letters that Carlene and Jerry exchanged during the war. These many perspectives reveal one secret after another, and only the reader is privy to the network of enigmatic deceptions as a whole. Cherry's irresistible voice balances the story: each time the horrors of Vietnam (or of Sweet Valley's underbelly) invade, Cherry's vivacity fends them off, although her own path is rocky. In the end, the author (Norman Mailer's wife) makes her characters take the tough road, and her accomplished, bittersweet novel proves that they are hardy, resilient, and complex enough for a journey that readers will enjoy every step of the way. 12-city author tour. (June)
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