Published by St. Martin's Press on July 26, 2016
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Read this book. It’s not often that I start off a review with these words, but Tiffany McDaniel’s debut novel, The Summer that Melted Everything, is more than worthy of an off-the-bat recommendation. I say this for many reasons: the writing is beautiful, the characters are unforgettable, and the storyline is an important one. Plus, it made the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize Winners 2016 list, and I never enjoy the Booker winners, so that was a good endorsement.
The book starts off with Autopsy Bliss, father of two, wife of an agoraphobic, and attorney, taking an ad out in the local newspaper inviting the devil to town in the summer of 1984. Perhaps skeptical of even his own ask, everyone is surprised when a 13 year old boy named Sal, with dark skin and green eyes, shows up claiming to be just that. But curiosity and compassion for this lost boy moves the Bliss family to take him in, despite the danger that lurks. But with the devil comes the heat, a stifling and penetrating heat that makes even the best people go mad. And it is this heat that serves as the wave that the story rides along.
Narrated by Fielding Bliss, also 13 that summer, we watch the entire summer unfold both in real-time and from his point of view as an old man. From a series of unfortunate accidents to the community pitting the blame on the devil that came to town, the story is heartbreaking both for its content and the lens through which it is told. But what really got me, and what really made the story seep into my soul, was what was unwritten. This seemingly fiction book is actually quite relevant to what is going on today: A community who blames that which they fear for every misfortune, with the desire to take action rising quickly.
For that is what is at the root of this novel – fear, blame, anger, and love. Fear of what is unknown. Blame for misfortunes. Anger at not understanding. Love for even that which is feared. It even delves, perhaps not so subtly, into religion. What is the devil, anyway? Is it a physical presence, in the form of a young boy? Or is it rooted in the actions that arise from fear? And what if, what if, the devil, the fallen angel himself, is a test along the lines of the Bible’s, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these
Although The Summer that Melted Everything does not delve into biblical verses, it does include a series of short vignettes that help shape the story in ways that both propel it and that help define Sal. Each of the stories could be a book in and of themselves, but McDaniels’ use of them is absolute perfection. And in the same ways that she makes Sal real to the reader, she does so for the other main characters. Each is beautifully imperfect, and there’s no way of knowing if the summer of 1984 will break them or define them. This uncertainty bestows upon the book a certain aura that you will only feel if you read it for yourself.
This is all, to be sure, heavy stuff and if you allow yourself to really see what McDaniel is saying, the book is a catalyst for pondering life and introspection. But the ultimate question is: What would you do if the devil came to town?
Recommended for: Readers who like books that make you ponder life, good, and evil.