The Summer She Was Under Water by Jen Michalski
published by Queen’s Ferry Press August 2016
*Disclaimer: I’ve known Jen for a number of years and consider her a friend. We’ve worked on a book tour together for her short story collection From Here; I used to write book reviews for her e-zine, JMWW; and one of my first stories ever published, “Hanged Cat,” appeared in JMWW. Therefore, I know I am terribly biased, but will be as honest as possible! Please check out Jen’s newest book available in both paperback and for Kindle!
As Jen Michalski shared in her most recent Meet the Writer feature, The Summer She Was Under Water was two novels that got woven into one. The main story is about Samantha Pinski. We quickly learn that her father, Karl Pinski, a heavy drinker and mentally unstable, was a violent man. The family learned to placate the monster that is Karl. That is, except Sam’s brother, Steve, who felt he was Sam’s protector, pinning his father down during violent episodes.
But now Sam is 33 years old, has a book published, teaches writing at Hopkins. Her book, which is woven into the main story, is about a man who is pregnant. By page 8, readers are told Sam’s book is actually about Steve. Though she sounds like a success story, her past won’t let her go. And now Sam is going to the Pinski family cabin for the Fourth of July weekend. She’s bringing her new friend Eve as a sort of buffer. Steve, who has been absent for years, may or may not come. Sam can mostly escape her family in her world of academia, but she’s alone and tends to destroy relationships before they destroy her.
Readers learn that Sam has recently broken off a two-year relationship with a man from a wealthy family, Michael. Karl Pinski is now heavily medicated and sober, so he’s like a deflated balloon of his former self. The entire story takes place Friday through Sunday, Fourth of July weekend, though we also get flashbacks to explain complicated relationships, in addition to chapters from Sam’s book.
Readers are taught to like Steve when he finally shows up that weekend. We align with him when we learn in a flashback that Steve took the blame for binoculars Sam lost in the lake when they were kids, which led to his father beating Steve during a family BBQ instead of Sam. Yet, Sam doesn’t know if she wants Steve to come to the cabin, so we know something happened that caused her to hate her brother. But what?
Then Michael shows up — yes, the Michael with whom Sam just broke up — because he was invited by Sam’s mom, Pat Pinski. Sam thinks of Pat as a sort of Shakespeare of romance, trying to arrange staunch individuals into couples. Michael’s into craft beer and soccer (totally unAmerican) and crosses his legs in such a way that suggests he’s effeminate. What did Sam see in him?
Steve quickly suggests Sam, Michael, Eve, and he go out in the boat so he can pull them behind on inner tubes. Michael is goaded into taking a turn, and Steve does his best to fling Michael off in an effort to humiliate the “rich boy.” Really, you’ll want Michael to fly off because you’re rooting for the protective big brother at this point, not the unwelcome ex.
But Michalski expertly takes readers back in time to when Michael and Sam were dating and he first met her family at Thanksgiving. The uneducated Pinskis embarrass Sam, but she feels safe there with Michael. When Steve shows up — late and drunk — he starts to make remarks about Michael not being “vetted” into the family yet, so Michael can’t take over protecting Sam. Michael defends her, saying Sam is a capable woman. Steve won’t listen to some new guy:
I’ve known Sam a hell of a lot longer than you, buddy, better than you ever will. She don’t need no fucking preppy wallet to come in and be all high and mighty to her family.”
Where does Steve’s possessiveness come from? We see time and again the suggestion that Steve won’t let another man care for his little sister. At 35, Steve seems too old to be such a bully. As a result of taking readers back in time to show Michael is a supportive man, my opinions swapped. I realized that I had been tricked into distrusting the outsider with money and different tastes. Once I understood Michael isn’t a stereotype, I became a more attentive reader and suspicious of Steve.
Some parts of The Summer She Was Under Water are familiar: rich vs working-class families, an abusive father whose children turn into damaged adults, an overly-protective big brother, a mother who will always “stand by her man.” But the beauty of the novel is learning how it all really fits together. Why is Sam so miserable? Why did she break up with Michael? Why won’t Steve come home for years at a time? I thought I knew exactly what happened in the past based on contextual clues, but I was wrong. It’s much more complicated.
Eve, the “relatively new friend” Sam brought along for the weekend, is an interesting outsider at the Pinski cabin. She has a ragged past more like Steve’s, so she relates to him, which is meant to make readers relate to him and see Steve through eyes unclouded. Then, Sam starts to worry that her friend and brother are attracted to each other. Meanwhile, the narrative implies Sam herself may be attracted to Eve when we’re given flashbacks of Sam’s and Eve’s developing relationship. Michalski easily works in fluidity: lesbian, bi, straight, male, female, both.
I did wish that Eve and Steve’s names weren’t so similar. I can’t imagine these names were chosen accidentally — “eve” is a component of “Steve,” right? But for that very reason, my eyes would fill in “Eve” to be “Steve,” and vice versa, when I read. I wondered if Michalski actually changed her characters names a few times to get them just right. In a few places the wrong person is named (surely an error in editing), such as confusing Michael for Steve, and Carol (an aunt) for Pat Pinski. Although I hesitated and pieced together what the sentence meant to say, these errors are few and didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the story.
Don’t forget that there is a book within this book, too. The book Sam wrote has its own chapters written in italics. We meet a man who discovers he’s pregnant and wants to kill the baby. Then, a strange woman comes to help him prepare for the birth. The tone of Sam’s book is different from Michalski’s, which is a delight, as it wouldn’t make sense if Sam’s and Michalski’s voices were similar.
In a couple of places the chapters from Sam’s book are really far apart (about 60 pages), which could make it difficult to remember what was happening. I would flip back and re-read the last page of one of Sam’s chapters and then pick up at the next. Had Sam’s chapters been more evenly placed, the story of the pregnant man would be more familiar. It’s easy to flip around in the paperback version, though Kindle readers may have a more difficult time.
I do highly recommend this book, my friendship with Jen aside. Even now, I want to know what happens to Michael and Sam, to Eve and Steve, to Steve and Sam. Whose relationships strengthened, and whose died after that Fourth of July weekend? I keep thinking about them. The Summer She Was Under Water is an emotional giant.
*You can read an excerpt of the novel at The Nervous Breakdown!