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review: summer sons by lee mandelo

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SYNOPSIS:

Andrew and Eddie did everything together, best friends bonded more deeply than brothers, until Eddie left Andrew behind to start his graduate program at Vanderbilt. Six months later, only days before Andrew was to join him in Nashville, Eddie dies of an apparent suicide. He leaves Andrew a horrible inheritance: a roommate he doesn’t know, friends he never asked for, and a gruesome phantom with bleeding wrists that mutters of revenge.

As Andrew searches for the truth of Eddie’s death, he uncovers the lies and secrets left behind by the person he trusted most, discovering a family history soaked in blood and death. Whirling between the backstabbing academic world where Eddie spent his days and the circle of hot boys, fast cars, and hard drugs that ruled Eddie’s nights, the walls Andrew has built against the world begin to crumble, letting in the phantom that hungers for him.


This book seduced me with its promise of spooky times and long stretches of repressed miserable queer longings and subsequently hooked me—line and sinker—with the clarity of its prose, the gorgeous character work, and the musings on vampiric love and inheritance and masculinity and all the bleak many-faceted enormities of grief. I felt, moreover, compelled by the delicious and increasingly fraught tensions crisscrossing the cast of characters. The slow-burn is real, and I lived for it.

Above all, this book hugely impressed me with its deliberate indictment of the racism baked into academic structures, an aspect that is too-often conveniently omitted by writers dabbling in the “dark academia” sub-genre. Mandelo doesn’t flinch away from pointing out how their (white) characters thoughtlessly perpetuate the problem, through horrifically powerful gullibility or just callous apathy. There’s a particular thematic note in this book that still has my stomach roiling with angry acids: as a queer person of color, you really cannot rely on your white queer peers to understand the shape of your chafing and grappling against institutionalized racism, no matter how well-intentioned they are/claim to be. Being queer does not make our experiences navigating the wide world similar or even equal. I’ve had interactions with white queers to whom this concept remains utterly ungraspable, and this book validates that helpless frustration. I mean, you KNOW a book has struck deep chords in you when the words burst out of you in a faintly coherent voice note sent to a dear friend because you are angry and you want to be angry with someone who will understand, in a marrow-deep way, the shape of your anger.

That said, this is a debut, so it’s inevitable that it winds up with a few flaws: I found the mystery predictable and the plot, which involves a lot of dangling threads and dead ends, plods along for the first half of the book and the pace soon lapses into a repetitive, episodic rhythm. In hindsight, this aimlessness is somewhat justified—Andrew, our protagonist, is devastatingly, explosively lost. Grief, formless and rampant, is pounding at him at every turn until he can hardly feel his own edges, and that protracted process of grieving is central to the novel. It takes some work to get used to, but it’s worth it. If you’re more keen on character-driven stories, like I am, rest assured that this will not put a permanent dent in your enjoyment of this book.

Overall, SUMMER SONS is a lovely book and an impressive debut from an author I’m definitely keeping an eye on.


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