If there’s one thing to be said for Tiffany McDaniel, it’s that she’s consistent.
Five pages into The Summer that Melted Everything, and I was immediately transported through the writing back to my reading Betty. I felt I could’ve picked this book up blind and guessed the author, or at least proclaim “this reminds me of Betty.”
This is both good and bad. Good because…well, how many writers can you think of that have such a distinctive voice and style based on only two of their books? Bad because… as quickly as I got into the story, I was just as quickly reminded of how flowery McDaniel’s writing tends to skew. “Flies buzzing around him like an odd sense of humor,” is not a phrase I care to read; it seems to say “Hey, you’re reading a Tiffany McDaniel book and I don’t want you to forget it, pal.” If I’m being honest I’m the kind of reader who prefers to be transported to another world, sucked into a tale so distinct and fleshed out that I forget I’m reading. I’m not one to linger and muse over “pretty,” and my patience for pretty writin’ is on the thin side.
Yet there are other telltale signs that this is a McDaniel novel, and good ones. Like in Betty, the story unfolding here is partly told to us by a narrator who is now much older and weathered than the youthful version of themselves they’re telling us about. This, I think, is an excellent decision because the nature of both stories – and the way it is told – often feels like memories being recounted; they’re tinged with nostalgia and intent on recollecting and recapturing the emotional and physical aspects that hung in the atmosphere of a particular recollection. There’s an authentic quality to that that I liked.
Unlike Betty, I rarely felt like I was reading a coming-of-age story, especially in the beginning. It’s no secret that those are not my cup of tea, and a large part of that is due to the languid, meandering vibe that is so common to the coming-of-age genre. Here’s some events that took place over a summer – or a year, or five years – of my youth. Individually, these events may not seem particularly devastating or meaningful, and they certainly all won’t have anything to do with the next. But altogether, they MEAN something delicate, they taught me how to grow up, or whatever unhappy truth about adulthood I had yet to learn. And so on and so on. Oftentimes the main character will find the moment of greatest important in a trivial happenstance of seeing a deer stand by some trees or Joe Neighbor’s son getting hit by a car. I think because the emphasis was on a bizarre outsider in this tale, The Summer that Melted Everything mostly avoids falling into this trap. The good parts are still there – atmospheric nostalgia, mostly – but there’s more of a fantastical intrigue to keep it moving along, not wholly unlike Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life.
This paragraph will be a light spoiler on plot, but not on finale. Feel free to skip it. I usually don’t put spoilers in my reviews at all, but it wouldn’t do to leave this out. But to be as vague as possible, I’ll just add this: one of the multiple subplots in this story hits on every beat of your typical “gay man in small town faces outings and homophobia.” As a gay man, I genuinely felt exhaustion at having to read this plot for the fifty-third time. It didn’t feel like representation, it felt like being unwillingly dragged through the mud, the hazy nostalgic vibe of the novel disrupted in its rush to recount the gory details of everything bad about growing up gay. And the sucky part? Ultimately, it felt jarringly out of place and pointless. Or at least, the point it made was blunted by its own tiredness, and the fact that other, more unique subplots in this book made the point much clearer or wrapped it in a more refreshing package. This book – and many coming-of-age books – revolve around a series of sucky, unfair, tragic things that happen to OTHER people. And, almost selfishly, the only true significance it plays is by how those awful things affect the protagonist. Even if it is in a “gee, I sure was shitty back then and feel bad about it now,” kind of way. I’m so tired of being dragged through this mud. I’m so tired of the gay tragedy being just another cog in the machine of straight fiction.
So where do I land with this book overall? While I was frequently put off and nearly rolling my eyes by walk-on grocery store clerks saying things like “the rest ain’t nothin’ but somethin’ that once was,” in reference to melted chocolate bars, the flowery prose bordering on pretentious a bit too much for my liking, I can’t deny that McDaniel is two for two when it comes to eliciting the feeling and emotion she’s shooting for. Yet with this book, and a *little* bit with Betty, though not nearly as much, I felt like the story was a bit underdone, a beautiful cake still wobbly in the center. It’s atmosphere and mood were incredibly strong, as well as the development of each character and their arc over the novel. It was cohesion that sometimes felt lacking.