Saturday, July 2, 2016

Book Review: "The Summer That Melted Everything" by Tiffany McDaniel

It's the summer of 1984 in the small town of Breathed, Ohio. Fielding Bliss is a fairly typical teenager until the day his father, Autopsy (is Autopsy Bliss not one of the best character names you've ever heard?), the town's prosecutor, puts in the newspaper an invitation for the devil to visit Breathed.

"If the devil was going to come, I expected to see the myth of him. A demon with an asphalt shine. He'd be fury. A chill. A bad cough. Cujo at the car window, a ticket at the Creepshow booth, a leap into the depth of night."

Imagine Fielding's surprise when a tattered-looking young boy arrives in town, claiming to be the devil. It seems hard to believe, and many think the boy, who calls himself Sal ("From the beginning of Satan and the first step into Lucifer. Sa-L."), is probably a runaway or a kidnap victim, not the devil himself. But he brings an unending heatwave to town, and suddenly, disasters begin to occur in his presence, although no one is quite sure whether he is causing the incidents or if it is people's reactions and fears that are to blame.

It isn't long before Sal becomes an integral part of the Bliss family, but their fellow Breathed residents are less than enamored of this fact, as they get riled up by a neighbor and former friend of the Blisses. As the heatwave continues ceaselessly, tempers flare, damaging insults are hurled, friendships end, rumors are spread, and Fielding finds himself suddenly confused by his family. Sal continues to maintain that he is the devil, and he brings about changes in people willing to talk to him, leading them to self-discoveries that change their lives. And as Fielding uncovers secrets his family and others hold, he knows he should react a certain way, but instead he acts like a typical teenager, which only adds fuel to the fire. So many things happen that remain unmentioned by his family, and this lack of discussion causes even more hurt and harm.

The Summer That Melted Everything is utterly mesmerizing, and it took me by surprise just how much it touched me. It's a book touching on powerful issues—racism, homophobia, fear of AIDS, agoraphobia, child abuse, religion—yet it never seems heavy-handed or preachy. This is a tremendously moving book; while much of the plot may not be surprising, Tiffany McDaniel did such a great job giving complexity and heart to her characters that you can't really distinguish which characters you should root for and which ones you should view as villains. I completely understood what motivated everyone to act the way they did.

The book is narrated by a much older Fielding, who reminisces about that life-changing summer, and the scars it left him with throughout his life. At times it was hard to distinguish when the plot was unfolding as it happened and when Fielding was recounting memories of other times in his life, and the emotional trauma Fielding suffered makes his older self a fairly unsympathetic character periodically. But when the story is fully told, much of his motivation becomes clear (although some plot twists confused me a little).

I've often commented that I read from a place of emotion, and if a book is well-written and it touches me emotionally, it resonates for me more than one that does not. It will be a long time before I'll be able to get The Summer That Melted Everything out of my mind. This book might not be for everyone, but if you open your mind, you'll be affected and moved.

Tiffany McDaniel, NetGalley, and St. Martin's Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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