The Last Summer of the Camperdowns by Elizabeth Kelly

The Last Summer of the CamperdownsI’m not sure whether to pity or envy Riddle James Camperdown.  She has one of the funniest mothers I’ve ever encountered in fiction.  That makes me envious.  On the other hand, Greer Camperdown’s withering humor is often aimed at Riddle.  Score one for pity.  Her father, Godfrey, known as Camp, is unnervingly gifted.  A labor historian, activist, composer of (off) Broadway musicals, and noted biographer of James Hoffa, he’s now a candidate for Congress.  He’s also the source of Riddle’s unusual moniker; she’s named after James Riddle Hoffa.  Score two for pity.

It’s 1972 and Riddle is looking forward to a lazy summer at the family home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.  It’s the perfect seaside setting for reading, playing with the dogs and indulging her passion, horseback riding.  The only cloud on Riddle’s horizon is her father’s campaign.  Her mother is not happy about it either, especially the expected entertaining and schmoozing.  But she’s a famously beautiful actress who left Hollywood when she married and she knows how to pretend she’s listening.

Riddle is twelve, the age at which children begin to realize adults have a life in which important things happened before they were born.  Adults have secrets too, and her parents’ will turn out to be unexpectedly dangerous.

Riddle acquires her own fatal secret when she witnesses something unsettling in a neighbor’s barn.  It involves the truly frightening hired hand and gifted horse handler, Gula Nightjar, a man who pops up to terrify Riddle whenever she has an impulse to tell what she knows.  He is spooky, spooky, spooky, and you believe he would paralyze Riddle into inaction.

Secrets abound in The Last Summer of the Camperdowns and Elizabeth Kelly uses them to explore the cost of silence, what constitutes true love and friendship, and how hesitating to do what’s right can have devastating consequences.  These are big themes and I found the way they’re explored in this novel compelling.  I also loved the characters, all sharply drawn and given to conversations so hilarious and beguiling I found myself losing track of time when reading.  I love it when that happens.  Highly recommended.

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