A Michigan summer is difficult to hold in your hands.
It is a season that slips into temperature extremes, turning increasingly novel each year — July and August heat are just almost unbearable at times — but more than that, summer is a season of universal renewal. Warmth is restored from the ground up in every living being, and the beating heart of summer forces a fresh pulse within every sun-kissed soul. It is undeniably obvious why summer has a reputation for blossoming love and brief romances: the ephemeral nature of its passions are boundless.
Despite this, it is impossible for me to truly love summer. The official calendar length of summer is three months, ranging from June to September — but this length rarely holds true in feeling. A Michigan summer is the very definition of brevity, a brief lapse of light sandwiched between the nine-month heartbreak that is Michigan’s grip of winter. The Arb’s bloom never lasts long enough, and the Diag’s trees lose their color faster than I can enjoy it. The loving warmth born in April settles into a casket by September. I can’t love summer, but I also can’t love the transition into winter, spring or autumn — each seasonal death is a funeral of sorts, and the reminder of life passing is almost universally mortifying. When summer’s scorching sun settles into the gloomy mornings of autumn, and the evening darkness comes earlier and earlier, the natural grief of another earthly rotation is difficult to miss.
Unfortunately, there are no cures for the endless melancholy the end of September and the start of October brings, but I offer you my literary mode of relief and escape nonetheless.
“Breasts and Eggs” by Meiko Kawakami
As the epitome of a somber summer afternoon, “Breasts and Eggs” by Meiko Kawakami hangs heavily onto the empty feeling of staring into endless summer sunsets. Set in Japan, the novel is propelled by the intertwined narratives of three characters: Natsuko, a single, struggling writer grappling with her age and the pressures of loneliness, success and motherhood; Midoriko, her silent niece laboring through the aches and pains of puberty; and Makiko, Natsuko’s older sister on the hunt for affordable breast implants to feel like the ideal woman. With each ebb and flow of the novel, Kawakami paints the deeply bittersweet scope of women’s lives from birth, through puberty and ultimately to death.
As the central idea of the novel, the brief glow of women’s youth holds the same ephemeral nature as the blink of summer. Kawakami explores this with ease: Natusko spends her portion of the novel in a fight against her window of fertility. She is unpartnered and not financially well-off, but her deepest desire is to be a mother. Her summer is ending, and the grief she feels over her childlessness turns into a feverish desperation to have a baby. She begins to spend more time than not researching sperm donation in Japan. Her sense of true womanhood relies upon fleeting biological ability, in the same way Makiko’s conception of womanhood is dependent on the perfect body. This body is dependent upon mimicking its previous window of youthfulness, despite Makiko’s ascendance into mother- and adulthood. This focus on recreating Makiko’s teenage and young adult life only fuels the confusion of Midoriko, who is entering her teenage years at the same time her mother tries to return to them. In this novel, the body is a weapon used against the woman who is inside it. There is a warm window of use for their bodies, and then a lifelong grief over losing the physical validation young women receive in a patriarchal society.
“Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin
As the paragon of tragic love stories, “Giovanni’s Room” ushers in the hauntingly melancholic experience of a summer love abruptly cut short, and uniquely ends in both literal and spiritual death. Set in ’50s Paris, the novel explores the seedy underbelly of the gay scene that David, the central character, falls into upon beginning a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender. David finds himself unable to repress his desires; despite his absolute determination to ultimately live the conventional heterosexual life with his fiancée, he is fully drawn by the hypnotic Giovanni. This internal torture and grief from David’s sexual identity ultimately drives the tragedy and grief of the novel, as he oscillates between reality and his dream.
For Giovanni, his love for David is greater than life itself. This is partially because his life is defined by pain — his titular room is full of wine stains, rotting food and notably lacks windows — and partially because David and Giovanni share a true love that Giovanni cannot bear to lose. In the all-consuming romance they share, every character knows that tragedy is lurking around the corner. Melancholy is the central setting of the novel — where Giovanni loves, there is a pit of sadness, and where David explores, there is a web of self-denial and pain. But David loses the war between his desire for love and his desire for his good American life, and this ruins everything for him. Giovanni spirals into self-loathing, murder and, finally, his death upon David’s abandonment; David’s fiancée smashes her and David’s picture-perfect life by leaving him. All that remains of his life is homelessness and an irreversible emptiness. This is the final grief of the novel: David and Giovanni both experience death, and both are inconsolably lost, but David is haunted by the past that resides tumultuously inside him and by the past love and freedom that has escaped him. Giovanni’s Room is an ambush of the rawest and most wounding portraits of Queer love and the perpetual melancholy that stains everything of love and value when it is denied.
This time of year is famously liminal — every day follows a course of seasonal change. Mornings are cold and bitter, but the afternoon heat swelters on the skin. The evenings, worst of all, invite reflections of moonlight and a once-forgotten cold. In this return of winter’s predecessor, tucking myself into the warm embrace of novels like these is often the only refuge I find.
Daily Arts Writer Ava Burzycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.