The Charm School

The Drifter

Enchanted Afternoon

The Firebrand

Halfway to Heaven

The Horsemaster's Daughter

The Hostage

Husband for Hire

The Mistress

Passing Through Paradise

A Summer Affair

Table for Five

The You I Never Knew

 
Summer at Willow Lake
by Susan Wiggs
(Mira, $7.99, G) ISBN 0-7783-2325-0
*****
At over 500 pages, this tale feels like an epic when you first pick it up. But in reality, what you have is story that captures the reader on many levels, with many characters and throughout a 30-year range of time. Summer at Willow Lake is one of the best I have read this summer, and probably other summers as well.

Camp Kioga is nestled in the Catskills of New York. Since the 1930’s it has been a summer camp for families and then for the kids of the more well-to-do families, owned and operated by Charles and Jane Bellamy. Every once in a while, a scholarship camper would show up, but mainly it was rich kids from the ages of 8 to 16 ready to enjoy the traditions of singing, playing, swimming and acting like idealistic kids for a whole summer. It was also hell for Olivia Bellamy, granddaughter of Charles and Jane.

Olivia, nicknamed Lolly by one of her younger cousins, was a well-adjusted young girl until her parents divorced when she was 12. That was the year she realized that she was heavy and using food to help gain some attention from her parents. It was also the year she met Connor Davis, the son of the camp’s maintenance man and local drunk. Since Lolly was a Bellamy, she had no choice but to come to camp and suffer through the indignities that only other kids can inflict on a child who is not athletic or thin. For Connor, although he was cute and athletic, he was something of an outcast by nature of being on a scholarship. An unlikely friendship developed that continued for many summers, ending in 1997. That was the year they returned to be camp counselors, another tradition, after they graduated from high school. It was also the year that ended badly, leaving scars that would last.

Nine years later, we are introduced to Olivia or Liv, as she is rejected by her third suitor in as many engagements. Technically it was two engagements, because the last guy never really proposed before he dumped her. And she can’t blame it on her weight. Olivia transformed herself in college, losing forty pounds and the bad eating habits she had gained. She is a successful “fluffer” designer. Her job is to go into a home before it sells and fix it up cosmetically and decoratively so that it feels homey and will sell faster. She is great at what she does. So good, her grandparents ask her to return to Camp Kioga and fix it up throughout the summer so they can celebrate their 50th anniversary at the place where they got married. She and her platonic friend, Freddy, along with a few cousins and other relatives agree to give it a shot.

The plan starts off on the wrong foot when she is found dangling from the flagpole in short shorts and a tee shirt by none other than Connor Davis. To make matters worse, this man who was the first love of her life doesn’t even remember her…without some help. He is still gorgeous. He is still single and their attraction is still strong and mutual. He is also the only contractor in the Willow Lake area.

They are joined in the endeavor to restore the camp, which has been sitting idle for almost 9 years, by Lolly’s cousin Dare, her uncle Greg and his two kids Max and Daisy and by Connor’s younger brother, Julian. Lolly discovers things about her parents and her own life that she is able to put into perspective, now that she is an adult. She sees the effects of divorce on Max and Daisy and this helps her heal from her own wounds. Connor too, sees life as an adult very differently than when he was a teen.

There is so much depth to this book; it is difficult to describe the entire tale. But it is a story of hope, despair, love lost and love found, divorce and the effects on kids of multiple generations and ultimately, the story of the power of love. There are secrets and feelings and understandings and just plain fun. Each character is given dimensions; a task that is not easy when there are so many players. Each storyline is given pages so that even the minutest detail comes through. And yet, while the book hops from year to year and story to story, Lolly and Connor are constant and their love story is center stage.

It is not often that I have enjoyed a book on as many levels. It is not often that this large a story kept my interest throughout and it is not often that a story of this depth has been as engaging and fast paced as Summer at Willow Lake. It is a story I will want to revisit just like the kids kept going back to summer camp. I think you will enjoy it too, if you join me there.

--Shirley Lyons


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