Excerpted from The Summer Guest by Justin Cronin. Copyright © 2004 by Justin Cronin. Excerpted by permission of Dial Press Trade Paperback, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Justin Cronin’s Sales Conference Remarks, 4/04
Like everything I write, the most startling thing about THE SUMMER GUEST, at least to me, is that at one time it never existed, not even as an idea. There’s a pleasurable shock to this fact -- I think it’s the reason most writers do what they do -- and the only corresponding sensation I can identify is trying to imagine what my life was like before my children were born.
But of course the book did start somewhere, and -- ironically for something that took so much work to make -- it started on vacation. This was nine years ago, in the summer of 1995. My wife Leslie and I had just bought our first house, a falling-down Victorian in a sketchy neighborhood of Philadelphia, and after two months of scraping woodwork in the summer heat, we had a case of buyers remorse so bad it had begun to include not only the house but also each other. The only thing to do to save the marriage was to pack up the car and get the hell out of there; we had no idea where to go, and arbitrarily selected the lakes region in the northwest corner of the Maine.
Spontaneous vacations to unknown destinations have a way of blowing up in your face, but this time we guessed right. So much of New England is awash with tourists in the summer: here was a place that absolutely no one seemed to know about, or at least very few, and it was just spectacularly beautiful, beautiful in a way that only a *secret* can be beautiful. We rented a cabin right on one of the bigger lakes, and passed a week in a happy daze, listening to the loons and ogling the young moose that stopped by the cabin every evening to snack on the bushes under the bedroom window – a shaggy-bearded buck we named “Keeanu.”
Toward the end of our time there, we visited a sportsman’s lodge about twenty miles away. I gathered it was kind of a well known place among fly fishers, which I am. It was simply magnificent: completely remote, on the edge of an absolutely pristine lake with a view of the mountains. We spent the morning paddling around in a canoe and then had lunch in the lodge. Seated at a nearby table was an elderly man who was obviously in very poor health. He was using an oxygen tank, and had a walker. While we were waiting for our meal, he was joined by his family: a grown son, a woman who might have been an aunt or sister, and a little girl. We had seen these people earlier, out fishing on the lake. “Tell me everything,” the elderly man said to his family, and they did: each detail of their morning, how the lake had looked and where they’d gone and what the fishing was like. He was too old, too sick, to go himself, I realized; their story of the morning was the closest he could get.
They left, and we finished our meal. When our waitress came by with the check, I asked her about what we had seen.
“It’s so sad,” she said, and to my astonishment, she burst into tears. “He’s so sick. He’s been coming here for thirty years.” Then she took our money and hurried away.
A weeping waitress. An overheard conversation at a fishing lodge in Maine. I couldn’t stop thinking about them: how sad it all was, like our waitress said, but beautiful, too, the way he’d drunk in every word, how just being in this place he loved was a kind of final sustenance. I knew immediately I would never forget them.
“You should write it,” Leslie said to me as we drove away.
“Why should I write it?” I said. “It was perfect just as it was.”
She gave me ... a look.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “is it just me, or am I married to the dumbest writer in America?”
She was absolutely right. If I could only figure it out, it was the kind of thing that writers wait for years to find. Who were these beautiful people? What attraction drew them to this place? And that number: thirty years. A whole history seemed bottled in the moment, a web of history binding all these people together.
This is where the imagination takes over, and the story I made – of fathers and sons, and a long love affair, and the power of what we feel for children, and the final, unquenchable yearning for home – was meant to honor the lines of love I felt in the lodge that morning. I think I began writing it before we’d gotten to the end of the driveway. But some stories need to marinate, and this one did: in the meantime, I wrote Mary and O’Neil, a love story of another, but I think not entirely different kind, and when I returned to THE SUMMER GUEST three years ago—a little older, a little wiser, and a parent myself—I knew I was ready to write it. I don’t know if it’s perfect, almost nothing you put on the page ever is, but I hope that the readers who find it will discover something of the great, sad, perfect joy I felt that day in Maine – in the book I wrote, and in their lives.
1. Discuss the fishing camp as a character in itself—a character that provides both comfort and treachery to its visitors. Does the camp evolve throughout the novel? What makes it so meaningful to so many?
2. The milestones of life propel the novel’s storyline. In what way do such turning points—marriage, mortality—unfold for the primary characters? What wisdom does one generation pass on to the next in The Summer Guest?
3. What is the effect of the novel’s prologue? What were your first impressions of Joe as he experienced homecoming after World War II, and how do these images carry you through the rest of the novel? Is the camp a refuge from the mainstream world, of a stark reflection of it?
4. In many ways, Harry and Joe lived parallel lives as widowers, parents, and eventually as men too physically frail to care for themselves. Compare and contrast their attitudes toward life. Did their lives intersect through fate alone?
5. How do the novel’s contemporary scenes compare with those from previous generations? Do Jordan and Kate have a simpler life than Joe and Amy had?
6. What locales are monuments to your own past? Describe some of the places that have special significance to you, and what it’s like to return to them.
7. Which storytelling point of view was most effective for you in The Summer Guest? Did gender lines affect the novel’s various voices? Are all the characters telling essentially the same story?
8. In what ways does war form a thread throughout the novel? What are your recollections or perceptions of the Vietnam conflict, and how might you have responded to the draft if Joe Junior had been your son? What does the absence of the draft mean to Jordan’s generation?
9. Several of the novel’s characters teeter on the boundaries between life and death. What seems to keep some of the characters tethered to life, while others cannot endure it? What is significant about the novel’s closing images of Bill and Joe, in light of their previous experience as survivors?
10. Discuss Joe Junior’s journey into Manhattan, a scene that occurs early on. Does he feel fulfilled at that point in his life? Would you have been able to sell such a legacy to Harry?
11. The lawyers on retreat appear to clash with their surroundings, uncomfortable with the natural world and inept at navigating its dangers. Do they in any way reflect the darker side of Joe’s home life? Or is his life a utopia?
12. Who are the novel’s most honorable characters? Where is the most genuine love found in The Summer Guest?
13. What gifts does Harry give to Jordan? What intangible gifts does Harry give to Hal?
14. What motivates Lucy to return to her old haunt and become “Alice” again at the end of the novel? What did that chapter in her young life mean to her, and what must it have been like for her to revisit it (this time in the role of daughter, under May’s wing)?
15. Are any of the novel’s primary characters spared from the pain of tragedy and loss? What coping strategies do they use?
16. The novel ends with a glimpse of the future as Kate gives birth to a daughter. What do you predict the child will discover about love and life? How do the characters pay tribute to their parents?
17. Justin Cronin’s previous book, Mary and O’Neil, also addresses the issues of coming of age, parenthood, and making peace with illness. In what ways do these concepts play out differently in The Summer Guest?