By: Lee Mandelo
Published: September 28, 2021
Genre: (Southern) Gothic Fiction
Eddie had made those decisions for Andrew as a matter of course, keeping them paired together as much as he could—until his surprise early semester at Vanderbilt. Five months of separation that had stretched into eight over the summer, and now would never end, (2).
Gothic fiction continues to have an interesting run. First, gothic fiction had a medieval setting. Then, the setting shifted to a rustic one where “gloomy castles and/or manors” were the focus of the story—think of the books we read in high/secondary school. Next, Southern Gothic fiction branched off with similar conflicts and settings in the Southern U.S. Now, Gothic fiction has an academic setting in which higher education is the subplot of the story. Lee Mandelo’s debut novel, Summer Sons, presents a new spin on the genre.
Andrew Blur is the protagonist. He has arrived in Tennessee in order to attend grad school at Vanderbilt University. Unfortunately, Andrew is not excited for this “new chapter” of his life; and, it’s because his best friend and adoptive brother—Edward Lee Fulton, or Eddie—died the month before from an apparent suicide. Understandably, Andrew is still in shock and is grieving for his friend. He decides to attend Vanderbilt in order to learn what really happened to Eddie. Andrew must get used to grad school and to living life without his best friend. He makes the trip and moves into his—Eddie’s—house, where he meets his housemate, Riley, who tries to console Andrew with his grief. On campus, he meet Thom West, a Ph.D. candidate and Andrew’s mentor, and Dr. Jane Troth, one of the research professors within the English department. Andrew is keeping track of who he meets and their relationship to Eddie because he is convinced Eddie didn’t kill himself. Then, Andrew meets Halse who is Riley’s cousin and one of Eddie’s closest friends. He is interested in helping Andrew with one or two conditions. Andrew is a complex character due to everything he is going through. It is easy to observe Andrew as a wayward individual who is indifferent, but given the circumstances it is easy to see why Andrew behaves the way he does. It is the other characters whose efforts to help Andrew allow for character development to occur.
The plot delves into Andrew’s true reason for attending Vanderbilt. He is convinced Eddie didn’t kill himself and he is willing to do anything and everything to prove it. In fact, between his grief and his investigation, he begins to neglect his health and safety to the horror of his new companions. Yet, he is not alone in his conviction; both Riley and Halse believe the same thing, and they are willing to help him out with everything. There are 2 subplots in this novel. The first subplot delves into higher education and life as a graduate student. As a former grad student, I can confirm the depiction of graduate seminars, motives of professors, and academic backstabbing are all accurate and ongoing. The second subplot revolves around the curse and the “haunting” Eddie was researching. Ghost stories and hauntings are part of Southern folklore, but know that there is some truth to those tales, and you don’t want to mess around with them; especially when you don’t know what you’re doing. These subplots play a significant role alongside the plot because as Andrew continues his investigation into Eddie’s death, he has to get involved with anything and everything Eddie was doing before he died. The mystery unfolds in tandem with the plot.
The narrative is presented in 3rd person limited from Andrew’s point-of-view. This means everything that is happening occurs through Andrew’s stream-of-consciousness and memories. While readers are able to comprehend all of Andrew’s thoughts and emotions as he goes through his grief, his memories play a pivotal role in Andrew’s mission to discover the truth. Yes, there are times when the narrative is overwhelming—which reflects the grief—but it can be followed easily by readers.
The style Lee Mandelo uses in Summer Sons revolves around both Southern Gothic and academia. The Gothic novel started as Gothic romance, in which the setting:
“was often a gloomy castle furnished with dungeons, subterranean passages, and sliding panels; the typical story focused on the sufferings imposed on an innocent heroine by a cruel and lustful villain, and made bountiful use of ghosts, mysterious disappearances, and other sensational and supernatural occurrences,” (Abrams and Harpham, 151).
Books such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë fit this definition. American Southern Gothic fiction takes place in the Southern U.S. and, compared to Gothic romance, more emphasis is placed on the supernatural. The most popular books in this subgenre are Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner and the works by Edgar Allan Poe. As for academia, American readers know Vanderbilt University is a prestigious university with a reputation which is reflected in the author’s novel. Life in grad school can be easy for some students and cut-throat for others. Some of what happens to Andrew, Eddie, and the other characters are NOT exaggerations. Such occurrences are more common than you realize. The mood in this novel is creepy. Throughout the novel, the protagonist and the other characters “sense a presence” amongst themselves. Who or what is it? What does it want? The tone in this novel is pursuing; pursuing truth and pursuing a reason to keep on living. Grief never goes away we just learn how to live with it.
The appeal for Summer Sons have been mostly positive. In addition to being one of TorDotCom’s most buzzworthy books of 2021, over 70% of readers have given it 4- and 5-star ratings. That being said, I understand why some readers did not enjoy this book as much as I did. One of the reasons I believe this is the case is because those readers read this book with the notion that it is a horror story. Horror and gothic have some similarities, but they are very different. There are elements of horror—“the protagonist seeks to destroy a supernatural threat in order to save themselves or others”—but this is a Southern Gothic novel, where more emphasis is placed on the supernatural being present and not hostile (Frohock). On a side note, as someone who is Caribbean and has resided in the Southern U.S. for several years, I do NOT recommend downplaying the supernatural. This is the author’s debut work, and it does belong in the Gothic canon.
Summer Sons is an academic Gothic narrative about grief and lineage. The characters not only have to confront the dilemmas surrounding their futures, but also deal with the ghosts they carry with them. While the book does have a slow start, the plot development and the character development allows for a fast-paced second half that is both enjoyable and believable. Higher education is scary.
My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5).
Abrams, M.H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 10th ed., Wadsworth, 2012.
Frohock, T. “Random Notes: The Differences between Horror, Dark Fantasy, and the Grimdark.” T. Frohock.
https://www.tfrohock.com/blog/2018/8/2/random-notes-grimdark-darkfantasy-horror. Accessed 16 Nov. 2021.
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
3 thoughts on “Why You Need to Read: “Summer Sons””
I was a bit wary of picking this up because of some mixed reviews, but you’ve convinced me I may need to take another look! 😀
I believe the mixed reviews are due to the realistic portrayal of grad school. Not everyone has attended a graduate school program, especially one where research is required.