The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro has been on so many lists of highly anticipated titles for 2017 that I jumped at the chance to review it for TLC Book Tours.
This is Julia Fierro’s second novel. Her first was Cutting Teeth. Fierro is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop in 2002. According to Fierro’s Goodreads profile, her writing influences include Meg Wolitzer, Tom Perrotta, Jane Smiley, and Margaret Atwood.
The Gypsy Moth Summer takes place during the summer of 1992 on Avalon Island, off the coast of Long Island. The gypsy moth’s are invading and Bill Clinton is vying for the Democratic nomination for the presidential election. Avalon is home to the once mighty producer of warplanes, Grudder Aviation.
The island is split between two classes of people who don’t tend to mix in social settings: the blue collar mechanics who work in the factory and the wealthy engineers and officers who run the business. There are strict codes of conduct and deep traditions on the island, all of which are unraveling due to social change, mergers in the aviation industry, and the general decay of an island culture that has been slowly suffocating itself for decades. Or perhaps its been eating itself, like the gypsy moths are now so blatantly eating all the leaves of the island.
Fierro’s writing is fantastic and beautiful. She weaves in various mythologies, beginning with the name of the island itself, Avalon of King Arthur fame, to Greek mythology, to a denouement that has the feel of a bloody Shakespeare tragedy. She succinctly conveys how insidious prejudices like classism, racism, sexism, and homophobia operate in a community. Take these two examples that reveal the experiences of the haves and then the have-nots:
“You could say that Avalon is a magical place. Girls don’t get pregnant. Boys don’t drive drunk. The money what’s-her-name stole from the PTA account is replenished as if it never happened” (117).
“She imagined the owners of West Side Liquor holding the bill up to the fluorescent light to spot the anticounterfeit strip. To make sure it was real. Another person doubting the boys’ worth, telling them they were no good without having to say anything at all” (330).
When Leslie, the lily white prodigal daughter returns to claim her inheritance, a huge estate called The Castle, the racist locals are unhinged by her Harvard educated landscape architect African-American husband, Jules, who in turn becomes a bit unhinged himself.
“It wasn’t the whiteness of his fellow partyers that unnerved him so much but the brownness of the help.” (93)
Then their teenage son Brooks gets involved with Maddie, a local girl who has a foot in both the blue collar and the white collar world, and things start to really heat up. Jules is lost in his own epic battle to save his garden from the rampage of the gypsy moths, someone is spray painting anti-Grudder sentiments around town, Leslie encourages her son to party with a dangerous mix of kids that are destined to implode. There’s hope that as kids who both come from two different worlds that Brooks and Maddie will make it. Cancer is on the rise due to decades of toxic dumping from Grudder Aviation. (A common problem around military-industrial sites. One of the more recent public examples is the water contamination at Camp Lejeune.)
Meanwhile, Maddie’s abusive father and drug-addled mother continue their negligent and abusive family patterns. Maddie’s grandmother, Veronica, returns to town from retirement in Florida with her senile husband in tow, The Colonel, the big man who once ruled Grudder. She’s scheming something, but her plans get disrupted when she falls in love with her granddaughter. After weeks of watching Oprah with Maddie, Veronica’s tough exterior, which as been protecting her heart for decades, begins to crack.
“She loved watching Maddie talk, think, move–they way the girl wiggled her toes while she read one of the novels Veronica had loaned her. Books by Edith Wharton and Charlotte Bronte. Tolstoy and Willa Cather. The girl devoured them.” (354)
One of the saddest characters is Maddie’s little brother Dom. He’s bullied, forced to perform sex acts on another boy, is probably gay, and is already relying on alcohol to make it through the day. This is an all too realistic depiction of what life is like for some gay or questioning kids. Tragedies abound in this story.
I was quickly pulled into this world and believed it. It seemed a bit like a mash-up between Dirty Dancing and An Officer and a Gentleman, with a splash of Erin Brokovich and a dash of Pat Conroy (the cruelty of The Great Santini, the racism of The Lords of Discipline). The main characters seemed like real people to me. I worried and wondered about them. I wanted to protect some of them and send others to therapy.
This novel has SO MUCH IN IT, but it didn’t seem crowded to me. It seemed messy like life. Fierro is a beautiful writer. I love the way she conveys the best and the worst that we humans can be. There’s violence (against women, kids, dogs, and gypsy moths) that at times is hard to take, but not gratuitous and never excruciatingly detailed. I didn’t see some things coming and am disappointed how other things turned out — again, like in life — but in the end, I finished the book with a sense of satisfaction of having been on an epic journey. It left me with much to ponder and I can’t wait to talk with someone who’s read the book, so please hurry up and read it so we can discuss!
Title: The Gypsy Moth Summer
Author: Julia Fierro
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press, Released June 6, 2017
Source: Review copy via TLC Book Tours and also purchased a digital copy to read on vacation.
Bottom line: An excellent summer read for those who like family drama, well-wrought tragedy, and historical fiction.