The Summer that Melted Everything
by Tiffany McDaniel
Publication Date: July 26, 2016
Length: 320 pages
Obtained Via: borrowed from the library
Publisher: St Martins Press
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Fielding Bliss has never forgotten the summer of 1984: the year a heat wave scorched Breathed, Ohio. The year he became friends with the devil.
Sal seems to appear out of nowhere – a bruised and tattered thirteen-year-old boy claiming to be the devil himself answering an invitation. Fielding Bliss, the son of a local prosecutor, brings him home where he’s welcomed into the Bliss family, assuming he’s a runaway from a nearby farm town.
When word spreads that the devil has come to Breathed, not everyone is happy to welcome this self-proclaimed fallen angel. Murmurs follow him and tensions rise, along with the temperatures as an unbearable heat wave rolls into town right along with him.
As strange accidents start to occur, riled by the feverish heat, some in the town start to believe that Sal is exactly who he claims to be.
While the Bliss family wrestles with their own personal demons, a fanatic drives the town to the brink of a catastrophe that will change this sleepy Ohio backwater forever.
This is the kind of book I really tend to love. Plus, it’s flown mostly-under-the-radar but the average rating is high, and I love discovering gems like that. Unfortunately, The Summer That Melted Everything turned out to be disappointing in numerous ways and was not the potential new favorite I hoped it would be.
The Summer that Melted Everything is a dark, dark book. You might not realize it based on the bright colors on the cover, but this book is bleak. Which is fine. I’ve been known to love some serious, dark, and depressing books in my time. This book just isn’t one of them. The Summer that Melted Everything is narrated by Fielding, who is an old man(set some time in the future) when the book opens, and a thirteen-year-old in 1984. After his father puts an add in the local paper inviting the devil into town. Shortly after that, Sal, a young black boy claiming to be the devil, shows up. Fielding is the first person to greet Sal in town, and after that the Bliss family’s lives become intertwined with Sal. Nothing supernatural necessarily happens, but a heat wave rolls in to town and some odd and tragic events begin to occur.
I really wanted to love the writing in The Summer that Melted Everything, and sometimes I did. McDaniel can turn a sentence and I was really invested in the first forty or so pages. But then everything just got weird. Once the heat wave happens, approximately 30% of the rest of the book is dedicated to the most heavy-handed metaphors you can imagine. The “devil” shows up and the town grows hot. People do bad things and stones are thrown at them. It’s not at all what anyone would call subtle. I liked the writing less and less as the book went on, as well. Throughout the entire novel there was just a sense of trying to hard. There’s potential there and I won’t discount whatever McDaniel writes next, but I thought it really fell flat here.
My main issue, however, is with the content. The Summer that Melted Everything deals with many serious issues: cruelty, justice, innocence, hatred, miscarriage, sexual assault, suicide, animal death, and both racial and homophobic hate. Now, I totally think all these issues can be in one book. I don’t think it’s unrealistic that they’re all in this book in the SLIGHTEST. . . but I also felt the ramifications of both the homophobia and the racial hate crimes weren’t explored properly or with sensitivity. This book is too short in my opinion to do that properly, and needed at least another hundred pages to do both of those topics correctly. At times, it was reminiscent of both To Kill a Mockingbird and A Prayer for Owen Meany, but I like both of those books better. More details about the hate crimes under the spoiler tag in the next paragraph(spoilers through the end of the book, and there’s a lot under the spoiler tag.)View Spoiler »So, in The Summer that Melted Everything, we do see both homophobia and racism kill. I’m not opposed to having these be shown on the page, but. . . there’s something that doesn’t sit right with me about either portrayal. About halfway through the novel, we learn that Fielding’s older brother, Grand, is gay. Fielding does not take this well and calls his brother slurs, as do other characters. A reporter comes into town and he and Grand hit it off immediately and hooks up. Fielding sees them having sex. Awhile later, that reporter writes an essay about how some gay men with AIDS think that having sex with a virgin will cure them. The reporter says he would never do this, but says what he would do in a “comic book story” if it were true. The implication is that the reporter did, indeed, have unprotected sex with Grand for the purpose of “curing” his AIDS(and of course, most likely transmitting it to Grand in the process). Grand commits suicide.
Even in a novel as dark as this one, having a storyline about a gay man intentionally spreading AIDs is. . . hmm. It’s one of those story lines that sure, you *can* write, but you probably shouldn’t, particularly since it tends to play into this stereotypical homophobic caricature of gay men as wild, partying men who do spread a disease intentionally. The homophobia is very rarely countered, except for Sal, the supposed devil who says that homosexuality does not lead to hell, and Fielding as an old man who wishes he got to see his brother grow up and meet his one-day husband. I’m aware that 1984 was not a kind time for LGBT people, and I don’t necessarily think it was the duty of any of the *characters* to counteract this. . . but it would have been nice if it had been more explicit in the narrative, since SO MUCH else was. There’s also not even time in the narrative to grieve Fielding properly, since almost immediately after his suicide Sal is killed in a mob. A group of townspeople come, grab Sal, and burn him alive. It’s slowly discovered over the course of the novel that the town man who is the eventual villain is mad at black men because his fiance, who died in an accident a long time ago, was having an affair with a black man shortly before he died.
The description is horrific, yes, but okay, racial hate crimes definitely happened. We all learn–or remember, for the older ones–about lynch mobs. But afterwards, it’s discovered that this man had been killing young black men and keeping their bodies in his freezer for years, and potentially eating them in an act of cannibalism?(I’m a little unclear on this point–Fielding, as the narrator, definitely says “eaten”, but the writing is very metaphorical up to this point so it seems open to interpretation). He becomes SO evil and horrific that the thread the book had been exploring, how normal people can be riled up to participate in evil acts such as a public, literal burn-at-the-stake is completely overshadowed. It also feels a bit sensationalized, which. . . eh. « Hide Spoiler
This novel has a lot of praise, but it left me deeply uncomfortable, and not in a thought-provoking way.
Despite the strong average rating and the engrossing first uarter of this book, I found myself disappointed by the end. While I can see this as a book that provokes discussion, much of the way the serious issues were handled left a lot to be desired in my opinion. 2/5 cupcakes.