In “Summerlost,” Ally Condie expands her repertoire from fabulous young adult to thoughtful and touching middle grade fiction. In this story, Cedar Lee is coming to terms with living life with her mother and younger brother after the sudden death of her father and brother, Ben. It’s the summer after the tragedy, and the three of them are in the small town where Cedar’s mother grew up. Her mother buys a house for them to live in during summers, and they spend their first summer — post accident — there.
There are many layers to “Summerlost,” and Condie handles them all with loving care. The first layer is that of a family in which tragedy has been a visitor. The lives of Cedar and her mother and brother were forever changed by a drunk driver. A serious storm that could have cost her mother’s life also serves to remind Cedar, and the reader, how precarious life is. In a continuation of the theme, Cedar and her brother play the board game “Life” often that summer.
Cedar also makes friends and gets a job with her friend at the Shakespeare festival that the town hosts every year. The job and the people she meets because of the job become important, but the focus is on Cedar, her family, and her new best friend, Leo. They start a side business, giving tours about a deceased actress who became famous because of the town’s festival. Her famous life ended prematurely, and there was a mystery surrounding her death. While Cedar and Leo are fascinated with her, they don’t solve that mystery.
While there is also an almost subliminal message about those who are different, Condie handles that delicately and with a light hand. Cedar’s brother Ben was autistic (or on the spectrum), and Cedar feels guilty that at times during his life, she wished he were gone. Now that he is gone, she remembers the good times and how much she loved him. She also remembers how horribly he was treated the short time he attended public school. Cedar herself is the butt of cruel behavior when boys make fun of her because she is half-Chinese. Leo, also, is teased for being different than the other boys.
The most important message that Condie repeats throughout the book is that life is fragile. A perfect day, like a perfect breakfast, must be enjoyed. Life must be celebrated and lived to the fullest. Going to London to see the best Shakespearean actor in Hamlet, skiing down a fabulous hill, and even remembering those who have died are important parts of a full life experience.
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Dutton Books, for review purposes.