This reading group guide for A Certain Summer includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Patricia Beard. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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It is the summer of 1948. Although World War II has been over for three years, for Helen Wadsworth, whose husband, Arthur, was declared mysteriously missing after an OSS operation in France in 1944, there can be no closure. Returning with her son to their beloved summer spot, the old-fashioned island community of Wauregan, she is haunted by memories of Arthur and the life they might have had, unable to move on because of the persistent hope that he might, somehow, still be alive.
But then Arthur’s best friend, Frank—the man who was on the mission with him in France, and perhaps the only one who may know the truth about what happened and Peter, a younger man who has been deeply scarred by his experiences in the war and who is trying to piece his life back together with the help of a German shepherd war dog named Max, both appear in her life, and she can’t help but feel torn by her feelings for both men.
As Helen and the other inhabitants of the island struggle to come to terms with their pasts, and to figure out what they want for the future, Helen realizes that what happened to Arthur might be more complicated than it seems, and sets out to uncover the truth, so that, once and for all, she can be free. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the novel’s title, A Certain Summer
. Why do you think the author selected this title?
2. The novel is rich with detailed descriptions of the ocean, the sky, and the landscape of Wauregan. Is there a passage or scene involving nature that stood out for you? What role does the natural world, particularly in summer, play in the lives of the characters?
3. It could be argued that, in some ways, Wauregan is as much a character in the book as its inhabitants. Do you agree? What sort of setting does the island create for the novel? What emotions and impulses are being acted upon or repressed by its inhabitants because they are on Wauregan, away from the “outside” world?
4. What are the myths about the idyllic island summer the author refers to in the opening passage of the book? How about the “mystique” and the magic?
5. On page 16, the author writes: “When the men were mired in muddy trenches, on bombing runs, and in deadly battles, their dreams of the colony were as vivid as Technicolor movies with big-screen happy endings. It might be unrealistic to hope that a small insular summer place could restore what the war had stolen, but [war] was so surreal it was hard to recall even an ordinary peacetime day. The warriors’ anticipation of the perfect families waiting for them in an ideal community were like the fantasies people at home shared during rationing. . . [describing] the delicacies they would enjoy when they could buy anything they wanted, only to find, after a few postwar feasts, that for the most part, even good food was just food.” Do you agree that, when we are deprived of something, whether it is food, the comforts of home life, or the love of another person, it takes on an almost fantastic magnitude in our minds, one that real life cannot match? Do you think this is true for memories, as well—for example, Helen’s recollections of her relationship with Arthur? Discuss this idea as it relates to various characters in the novel.
6. Throughout the novel, memories of Arthur haunt Helen, and Wauregan is a tether to a part of the past that no longer exists for her. At the end, after finally learning the truth about what happened to Arthur, and with Frank dead and her house on Wauregan gone, she feels that she is finally free. Did you interpret that to mean free of the past, of her ambivalence about Frank and Peter, or of the limbo in which she has been living while she waited for definitive news about Arthur? Do you agree that she is “free,” or do you think the novel suggests that the past can never be escaped?
7. After Frank has been killed, Helen reflects on page 312: “She could only feel pity for the innocent scholarship boy who had come to Yale, and been tempted to pretend he was someone else, until he no longer knew who he was— only what he wanted.” Discuss the role of identity throughout the book. How does wartime change the way we define our identities, and the ways others define us?
8. There are various examples of marriage, romance, and sexual relationships in this novel. Based on your reading, what do you make of the attitudes about marriage during this time? What about attitudes toward fidelity, sex, or love? What role do you think the war had in the way relationships were formed and carried out in this novel? Provide examples.
9. Which characters won your sympathy and why? Did this change over the course of the novel? Did your notion of what was best or right shift in the course of your reading?
10. On page 292, Pauline takes Helen to the room the German soldiers have defaced and tells her, “Louis-Arnaud said this place had seen many things in five hundred years, and this is part of its history. If we restored it, we would be pretending that these horrible things hadn’t happened. We keep this room to remember the filth people can stoop to, and act before evil prevails.” Do you agree with Louis-Arnaud that it is important to keep reminders of the lowest points in human history, as a warning for the future? Or do you think that preserving such markers are roadblocks to moving forward?
11. The book opens with the line “Nothing ever changed at Wauregan.” Do you think, ultimately, this proves true? Do you think it’s possible for a place not to change, at its core? Why do you think people find comfort in the idea of a place that “never changes”? In 1948, at Wauregan, what elements of the colony’s traditions have been successfully maintained? What has been disrupted? Are the disruptions permanent, or are they particular to the postwar period?
12. O n page 221, the minister, Dr. Waters says: “‘Don’t pass along stories that can hurt others. As my mother used to warn me, ‘If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.’ Let’s attempt to find something good to say about each other, or hold our tongues.’” And Pauline notes on page 292: “In even the most beautiful garden, a poisonous snake can crawl out from under a rock and bite you . . . .You may recover, but the next time, you will be careful where you step.” How do you think each of these statements applies to the events in the novel?
13. World War II was a catalyst for enormous social and cultural change, and although the Wauregan colonists try to shield themselves, no character in A Certain Summer
is left untouched. Discuss some examples. How does Helen’s life exemplify these changes? Whose life do you think was most altered by the war?
14. What did you think of the conclusion of the novel? Did it turn out as you expected? Would you have ended it differently? If so, how?
15. On page 4, one Wauregan resident tells Arthur: “In certain summer places, we try to leave all that behind and just be good neighbors.” When do the inhabitants of Wauregan succeed in being good neighbors to each other, when do they fail, and why? Enhance Your Book Club
1. In the novel, Helen mentions two books that were very popular at the time: The Egg and I
and Forever Amber
. Pick a book published in 1948 to read for your next meeting. Among those that hold up well are Dinner at Antoine’s
by Frances Parkinson Keyes, a murder mystery in which, as in A Certain Summer
, “place” (in this case, New Orleans) is a major element of the book—in addition, one of the characters is a World War II soldier, mistakenly declared dead. Another choice is Norman Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead
, which chronicles his experiences during the Philippines Campaign in World War II.
2. Have a retro film night: rent the movie versions of The Egg and I
, Forever Amber
, or the classic 1948 film Key Largo
, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, in which a storm—also as in A Certain Summer
—plays a significant part in the story. The romantic comedy A Foreign Affair
, starring Greta Garbo, and set in occupied Berlin just after the war, was also released in 1948, and deals with aftershocks from the war.
3. Helen’s mother-in-law’s special iced tea, steeped with fresh mint, sugar, and mixed with orange juice; the judge’s favorite coconut cake with lemon curd filling; tomato aspic with cucumbers; and coleslaw with bacon are among the delectable summer treats mentioned in the book. Make and bring your favorite summer foods to your book club meeting and have a Wauregan-style feast, whatever the season.
4. The loveable Max is an important character in the novel. Do some research on war dogs and present your findings to the group. Consider checking out some of the sources the author used in her research, including War Dogs of the Pacific
, a film by Harris Done (www.wardogsmovie.com), the book War Dogs: A History of Loyalty and Heroism
by Michael G. Lemish, published by Brassey’s, Washington, D.C., 1996; and Hero Dogs: Secret Missions and Selfless Service
by Lance M. Bacon, published by White Star Publishers (www.whitestar.it). A Conversation with Patricia Beard Q: What inspired you to write A Certain Summer?
A: I have wanted to write about the American tradition of the family summer community for a long time. It has a special resonance for me, as when I was a little girl, my family spent summers in a small summer place in Maine; and when my children were young, we summered in a community similar to Wauregan. For many people, the memories of childhood are most vivid when they take place in summer. I wanted to explore that, and celebrate it. Q: You are known as an author of nonfiction books. What made you decide to write a novel?
A: In nonfiction, I am restricted to what I can know, and that often limits the use of dialogue; fiction freed me to use more of my creative energy. A crossover is that while A Certain Summer
is not autobiographical, as so many first novels are, it is set in a world I know well. Q: How has your experience writing nonfiction influenced A Certain Summer?
A: Throughout the book, I had opportunities to research subjects that interested me: among them were the emotional and social influences in the aftermath of a “good war”; the historic role of war dogs; and the way the OSS and French Resistance operated. Q: Are your characters based on real people?
A: No, with one exception: Kathleen is based on a woman who helped me bring up my children and who was such an important part of our lives that my daughter named her first child after her. But “Kathleen’s” stories from Ireland come from research and my imagination. Q: Why did you set your novel in 1948?
A: Partly nostalgia. There were many similarities to the 1950s, when I grew up. And partly because I’m interested in transition. In 1948 society was on the cusp of change, yet at Wauregan, the members of the community tried to keep the past alive. I think the traditional structure of Wauregan provided a needed balance. Q: In what ways is Helen a modern character? Are you like Helen?
A: Helen is more independent than many of the women in the story, because she has been on her own since her husband left to serve in the OSS. Am I like her? Since I invented her, she does have some of my qualities. And like Helen, I am tall and thin, wear glasses, and am a graduate of Bryn Mawr College. However, I grew up in Manhattan, not in the Midwest, and my grandfather was not a railroad baron—although I’ve taken the liberty of borrowing the nickname of James J. Hill of the Great Northern Railway, who is the great-grandfather of my children on their father’s side. Q: What are some of the myths you refer to at the beginning of the book?
A: The most important is the idea of the “family summer place.” Until women entered the workforce in large numbers, summer colonies were nearly entirely inhabited by mothers and children during the week. Fathers came on weekends, and for short vacations. On Sunday nights, when the men returned to their jobs in the cities, life returned to the world of women and children. Q: Is Wauregan exceptional, or is it similar to other summer places?
A: Except for the geography, it could be transposed to most regions of the United States, and many different social and economic groups. Q: In those colonies is it true that “nothing has changed” in the past two generations?
A: In the ones I have known, the basic values remain the same, although the tradition of multigenerational families is somewhat diluted, as it’s much less common for young men and women to marry their childhood friends, “newcomers” enter, who might not have been as welcome a couple of generations ago, but who often refresh a place that can become ingrown. It works well as long as they share the community’s essential values. Working mothers, the higher incidence of divorce, and increased informality have also shifted the dynamics of traditional summer places, often for the better, but in those like Wauregan, the essence remains. Q: There are a number of instances of trust and betrayal in the story. Why?
A: Those are among the universal questions: Who can I trust? Who can’t I trust? How can I know? Q: Why did you include a German shepherd?
A: I love just about any kind of dog. I’ve never lived with a German shepherd, but I have known some, and they have a special quality of loyalty, gentleness, and the potential to be fiercely protective. Those are qualities I like in men, too. Q: Some of the men at Wauregan suffer from what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. The war dog, Max, was “deprogrammed” before he was returned to civilian life. Do you think it would have helped men returning from the war if there had been a required readjustment period, even if it was brief, before they were flung back into civilian life?
A: It would have been hard to establish, as the men who had been in combat and their families were eager to be reunited. But, with knowledgeable counseling, it might have helped, and would be helpful now for returning veterans. Q: Were you rooting for Helen to end up with Peter, Frank, or for her husband, Arthur, who was missing in action, to return?
A: See what you think when you read the book! Then tell me who you were rooting for, and whether it changed as you read along. Q: How did you come up with some of the episodes in the story?
A: I made up most of them, but some came bubbling to the surface from stories I’d heard. For example, my mother told me about a woman who went off with her lover in a seaplane during the week, while her husband was away. Mother said the other women in the community knew about it, but didn’t tell their husbands because they were afraid the men would become suspicious about what was going on when they weren’t there. I admit that it’s also true that my son was kicked out of sports group one summer. I can’t remember why, he was only about eight years old, and he was readmitted after he apologized for whatever transgression started the problem. Q: What are the elements of summer in a small colony that most appeal to you?
A: I love knowing the parents of my friends, my children’s friends, and the next generation—the grandchildren. And I love the peacefulness of island life. I write during the summer, but it feels different to be working on an island than in my office at home. Q: Do you still spend summers at the community on which Wauregan is based?
A: No. I haven’t been there since the late 1970s. Q: When you write nonfiction, you haven’t had to describe sex scenes. There is quite a bit of romance in A Certain Summer. How did you deal with sex?
A: Delicately. Some things should remain private, even in fiction. And there’s always the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Q: You have a significant sailing scene in A Certain Summer. Are you a sailor?
A: I enjoy sailing—as a passenger. I counted on my husband and some friends, including a fourteen-year-old boy, to advise me. Q: For a summer place, you don’t place much emphasis on sports, except sailing. Why not?
A: Helen and Peter are both avid swimmers, of course, as was Arthur, but except for tennis and sailing, the emphasis at Wauregan is not on competitive sports. For example, there is no golf course. As for me, my favorite “sport” is reading under an umbrella on the beach. Q: Do you plan to write more novels?
A: Absolutely. I have an idea for the next one, which will also be set in the World War II period, but before the war, rather than after it. The story will include a complicated romance, espionage and danger, and authentic historical detail. I’m thinking about how to include a dog and I expect I’ll find a way.