Book review: Summer of ’69 by Elin Hilderbrand

I pre-ordered Summer of ’69 back when there was still snow on the ground and was beyond excited to receive it in my mailbox on its publication day, June 18, 2019. As excited as I was to finally have my own copy, I didn’t dive into it right away–I wanted to save it and plan the perfect time to dig in to this highly anticipated read, so I decided I’d be patient, wait, and bring it to Maine on our family’s annual beach vacation at the end of July. In my mind, I’d be nestled into my beach chair, somewhere near the shore at low tide, savouring page after page as the ocean air took over my senses.

Needless to say, I didn’t end up reading it at the beach…I didn’t even read it in Maine! I only read 2 of the 7 or 8 books I brought on vacation (overly ambitious, I know–but as a mood reader I wanted to have options!), The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger and Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane. When we arrived home on August 3, I’d started actually feeling guilty for not following through with my Summer of ’69 reading plan, which in turn got me thinking about highly hyped books and the (almost unreasonable) expectations we place on them. Somehow without even realizing it, I’d imagined an ideal reading scenario that could no longer be met, which was discouraging me from reading it altogether.

I finally decided to read it this week and became even more apprehensive when the book started a little slow for me–the first 50 pages or so were more challenging to get through than I expected, but I’m so glad I stuck with it in the end. I particularly enjoyed the dynamics of the Foley-Levin family–their individual journeys as well as their relationships with others–kept me engaged and intrigued. It was the kind of multigenerational family saga I’m usually drawn to, and it did not disappoint in that regard. One of my favourite things about Hilderbrand’s writing is her unique ability to draw readers in and get them deeply invested in her characters; indeed, at around the 90-100 page mark I began to fly through it and couldn’t put it down.

As a fan of historical fiction, the only downside to this book for me was the overall lack of depth and nuance in relation to key social and political moments of the late 1960s–issues like racism, gender equality, interracial relationships, infidelity, and even domestic violence were treated quite superficially and lacked the depth necessary to provide additional and nuanced insight into a fraught and dynamic period on the cusp of massive social and political change.

But upon further reflection after having finished the book, I started to see the book in a new light–more as a tribute to the people, places, and traditions that shape families over time than as a distinctly historical period piece. Hilderbrand’s heartfelt author’s note drove this idea home and made it all come together for me; sprinkled throughout the story are personal details and memories from her own family and upbringing, making it a fictionalized narrative based on key historical moments that shaped her life. As she so poignantly concludes in her note, “In this novel, I strive to bring you not empirical truth, but emotional truth,” and in this way she succeeds beautifully.

Rating: 4/5 ★

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