Book Review: Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle

Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle is a writer whose name has become synonymous with modern fantasy. His second novel, The Last Unicorn, has become a classic and has been turned into an animated film, a play and a comic. Over the years he’s written for film and TV, short stories and novels. Of course it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t always thought of in those terms. His first novel was A Fine and Private Place, which todays is considered a modern classic of fantasy, but it was an unusual book that stood out for many reasons both then and now. His second book was I See By My Outfit, a nonfiction account of traveling cross country by scooter. He was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where he overlapped with people like Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry.

Maybe I should admit up front that while I like The Last Unicorn, it’s never been my favorite book of Beagle’s. I don’t say this to be petty, but I was reminded of this fact reading the first chapter of Summerlong. The Last Unicorn is this lovely fable, but the truth is that Beagle’s great talent lies in the fact that he writes fantasy stories that are not fairy tales.

Books like Summerlong, for example.

The book is about Abe and Joanna and her daughter Lily. These are not fable-like characters, they are precisely rendered, quirky and unique individuals with rich full lives, walking contradictions, and struggles. The way that Beagle writes them for chapter after chapter without fantasy intruding – and then for many more chapters with the fantastic at the edges of the action – demonstrate that if he wanted to, he could write a completely realistic novel. He could write a series of realistic novels with complex characters with messy lives and immerse us in the drama of their ordinary but colorful lives. To find and depict the quotidian in new ways, to capture colorful people falling in and out of love, having adventure, struggling to maintain the status quo and abandon what they’ve built. He could probably gain a lot more readers and make a lot more money if he did that.

He’s not interested in writing that book, though.

For Peter S. Beagle, those details, those lives, can also be the foundation of a work of fantasy.

There is so much that I like about the book and these characters that critiquing elements feels almost rude. My biggest complaint is that I could see the twist coming and knew what would happen. Of course when I say that, I’m being disingenuous. I knew who the fantastic figures were and what that meant. I could guess how certain things would play out. I have read a lot of fantasy, a lot of mythology, and so I knew who the characters were before it was explained, and I know that encountering the divine does not leave people unscathed.

When it comes to what would happen to the human beings, to Abe and Joanna and Lily, who we’ve come to know, the truth is that I did not see what would happen. It was surprising but not shocking. Beagle has them acting in character of course. He’s too good a writer to simply throw things at us or have them respond in ways that don’t fit. But there is also the simple fact that the fantastic, the magical, has entered their lives and it changes them. As in classical myth, that doesn’t mean that one’s life improves necessarily, but they cannot simply go back to the way things were before. There is no normal anymore after such an encounter. These vast unchanging figures of myth continue as they have since time immemorial, unchanged, but every time they intersect with the human world and with human beings, they leave wreckage in their wake.

That’s another good example of why his fairy tale stories have left me cold. As I say it’s personal preference, but when Beagle is able to so precisely dissect human relationships as he’s shown he can here, why would I be satisfied with a fairy tale. This is why so much fantasy leaves me cold. Somehow the world they depict is fantastic but it also means so little to characters who are thinly written. The stakes are too low for me to care and be fully invested.

The truth is that the fantasy stories that are impactful, depicted events that changed and reshaped the characters in them. Everything from the legend of King Arthur to Beowulf to Lord of the Rings features characters who change, who die, who are transformed and never the same again. They feature human flaws and human drama, and too often genre fiction is willing to put aside drama and humanity for spectacle. Perhaps that’s modern, or maybe that’s simply American, I don’t know.

But this is why I have read all of Peter Beagle’s work, even if I don’t always manage the month they are released. Because even when I don’t love them, I am affected by them. They are moving and thoughtful stories about people. Beagle’s great skill is how time and again he has found ways for magic and the fantastic to interact with ordinary lives – and find a way to make those things feel both natural, or at least have the effects within the realm of possibility for those outside the direct circle of them, and yet seismic to those who are caught up in it. After all, that is how all the ancient stories and myths worked.

Summerlong is such a precisely drawn, beautifully written book. It was a pleasure to read even after summer has ended and even when the characters behave in wrenching ways. This is a book that doesn’t offer a happy, pat ending. It is a book, though, that was hard to put down. This is no fairy tale; but it is magic.