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Review: Summer of ’69, by Elin Hilderbrand
Little, Brown, 2019. 418 pp. $28

For Kate Foley Levin, the annual family pilgrimage in summer 1969 to her mother’s home in Nantucket will feel sparse and lonely. Her only son has been drafted and is an infantry grunt in Vietnam; any moment, she expects the telegram announcing his death. Kate responds by withdrawing to finds solace in the bottle. Meanwhile, her eldest, pregnant daughter can’t leave Boston to join the family, for her due date is weeks away, and she’s too uncomfortable to travel. Said daughter also suspects her geeky MIT husband, who consults for the Apollo space program, is cheating on her. The next eldest daughter, a contentious soul, has annoyed Kate by making a mess of college and getting arrested at protest marches. But she won’t be there to bother anyone, because she has a job on Martha’s Vineyard, where, unbeknownst to Mom, she falls for a Harvard man who happens to be black.

Jessie Levin, half-sister to these siblings (her father, David, is Kate’s second husband) needs her mother more than ever. Just turned thirteen, she feels utterly bereft without her family, especially her half-brother, to whom she’s very close. She’s also fighting several losing battles, most notably with her bigoted, vicious grandmother, Exalta, which Kate might have helped with, but forget that. One firefight concerns Jessie’s identification with her (purely cultural) Jewishness, a link she shares with her father; she’s freaked out that Exalta’s an anti-Semite.

So we’ve got the Vietnam War, to which the Levins and Foleys are opposed, and a son at risk. We have possible marital infidelity, alcoholism, political protest, interracial romance, and anti-Semitism. As if that weren’t enough, we have sexual and physical abuse, feminism, Jessie’s sexual awakening, and abortion. And oh, yes, Jessie’s reading The Diary of Anne Frank for school. Summer of ’69 purports to be beach reading, but that’s one hell of a load.

Neil Armstrong’s photograph of Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface, July 21, 1969 (courtesy NASA, via Wikimedia Commons)

What we don’t have is the Sixties — the lingo, the vibe, the sense that this was an unusual decade, the belief that so much was possible yet so much was wrong, and that you felt compelled to take sides and make a statement. Hilderbrand shows none of that. She’s strong on fashion, issues, and headlines, but those are period details, museum exhibits. The summer of 1969 was my last before my senior year of high school, so we share a fascination for that moment (she was born that July). But, much as I enjoy re-creations of that time and salute her attempt, I don’t think she gets it.

In her favor, she can keep the pages turning. She’s a keen observer of family dynamics, and she manages to thread several narratives without missing a stitch. In her world, people don’t talk to each other, and the closer they are by blood, the less they say, because they have secrets to hide. She also has a friendly, drop-in-for-a-chat-dear-reader tone that makes her narrative pleasant company, like an easy-listening radio station.

But Hilderbrand’s ease cuts two ways. Despite the pain the characters suffer and the issues she raises, which couldn’t be more momentous, the treatment feels one-dimensional, like posed family snapshots. Everything seems too far away to hurt anybody for real. With so much simmering conflict and so little honesty, you’d think more would explode, and that’s why I finished the book. I wanted to know how Hilderbrand would resolve these conflicts—and I now know I wandered into Never-Never Land.

One problem’s the characterization. Kate’s controlling and craven by turns, and it’s not clear why. David’s a good guy with no depth, and the older sisters represent themes but lack compelling internal lives. Jesse’s the only character who seems reflective about what matters:

Jessie thought all grown-ups lived in a different atmosphere, one that was like a cool, clear gel. Adults had problems, Jessie knew — money and their children — but one of the benefits of reaching adulthood, she thought, was that you outgrew the raw, hot, chaotic emotions of adolescence.

Yet this girl, intelligent and emotionally tuned in, gets upset that Anne Frank dies; she thinks the book shouldn’t have ended like that. The Holocaust! Who knew? Hilderbrand warps her narrative up, down, and sideways to let her characters find redemption and forgiveness and throws in the world’s most famous Holocaust victim, as though Anne defined those values. But don’t get me started on writers who co-opt a Jewish girl as a Christian saint, a Joan of Arc who turned the other cheek–a travesty encouraged, in part, by Anne’s father, who sanitized his daughter’s diary for publication.

Let’s stay with Jessie, a perceptive, nominally Jewish child whose brother’s in the Viet Cong’s crosshairs. Her heart’s been broken, and she has a sense of painful reality, even if she doesn’t always understand the why or how. Maybe she unconsciously connects her brother’s fate with Anne’s. They’re both so good; how can they die?

That’s a worthy question, but Hilderbrand doesn’t stay there. Having shown how bad things can almost happen to good people, she bails them out by snapping her authorial fingers, relieving them of the hard work of living. Maybe that’s what a beach book is supposed to do, keep you at a distance from work. But in relying on that illusion of substance, Summer of ’69 trivializes its subject matter.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.