Setting down the right words to describe the magic of sleeping under one cool sheet or making s’mores around a bonfire is easier said than done. In case this triple-digit hot spell isn’t enough of an initiation into the dog days of summer for you, here are our top picks for novels where the essence of the season was done justice. Leave a comment if your favorite summer read didn’t make our list.
Summer by Edith Wharton
Consistently spot-on with her portrayal of social hierarchies in the early twentieth century, Edith Wharton’s Summer — which caused quite a stir when it was published in 1917 — tells the story of a girl from a rural, poor background who is taken in by a wealthy widower. Charity Royall becomes entangled with a man who takes his meals at their home, eventually leading to her sexual awakening. Wharton’s microscope is focused on nature rather than petticoats and social norms in this novel, a departure both in setting and subject matter from her repertoire of New York-based writing.
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
Bring back the nostalgia of summers past with Colson Whitehead’s coming-of-age story about Benji Cooper. Set against a 1980’s Long Island backdrop, Benji spends his summer vacation in relative freedom. The text is packed with references to ’80s pop culture and is the perfect read if you yearn for the simpler days of your youth where the main concerns were first kisses and braces.
Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
In Judy Blume’s third adult novel, Summer Sisters, Vix and Caitlin are an unlikely set of best friends. Their summers from girlhood through adolescence are spent together at Martha’s Vineyard where they lust after the local boys working summer jobs and inch toward college, relationships, and the ramifications of growing up. This portrayal of a friendship spans over twenty years, and demonstrates how people transform over time.
The Dangerous Summer by Ernest Hemingway
As demonstrated in The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway is a master at capturing the drama of being an expat in Spain during bullfighting season. While The Sun Also Rises was punctuated by love triangles, gore, and wine, The Dangerous Summer focuses on the pressures of bullfighting season itself and also casts a sharp look inward at Hemingway as a person.
Summerland by Michael Chabon
When a Pulitzer Prize-winning author writes a YA novel, it’s probably worth checking out. In the case of Summerland, a fantasy novel which was clearly inspired by the work of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Chabon has created a baseball-loving mythical island in Washington state which “knew a June, July and August that were perfectly dry and sunshiny.” But here’s where things get interesting: It’s also a portal to other dimensions.
Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In typical Fitzgerald fashion, the idle rich are at the forefront of Tender Is the Night. Dick and Nicole Diver are a glamorous young couple spending their summer at a villa in coastal France. The couple befriends a young Hollywood actress who is quickly incorporated into their circle of fellow wealthy vacationers. The beautiful summer at the Riviera is marred by a murder, and after departing from France, the unraveling of the Diver family truly begins.
Summer Crossing by Truman Capote
Truman Capote’s first novel Summer Crossing takes place in New York City circa 1945. The manuscript was thought to be lost or destroyed but was finally published in 2005. Grady McNeil is a young socialite who refuses to accompany her parents on their usual glitzy summer trip. Left to her own devices in the city, Grady becomes romantically involved with (gasp!) a parking lot attendant.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
National Book Award-winner Let The Great World Spin is a novel laced together by several different narratives, spanning from a waspy Park Avenue wife of a judge to a hooker to an Irish immigrant. The common thread? All characters are centered in New York City, summer blazing, while the Vietnam War rages on abroad. Despite the chaos abroad and on US soil, the city comes to a standstill when onlookers spot a man begin to walk on a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Francie Nolan is an earnest, practical little girl growing up in early twentieth century Brooklyn. Her father is a charmer and a dreamer, while her mother anchors the family in the reality of their financial struggles. A classic coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of summertime in Williamsburg — way before it was overrun with hipsters.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
When 12-year-old Dolores Haze goes away to summer camp, she has a much older lover. While she’s away, her mother is hit by a car, and so she gets picked up by her brand new “stepdaddy.” For all of his perversity, you can’t help but be fascinated by poor, enamored Humbert Humbert and his verbal acrobatics. Until you come across a passage like this: “And so we rolled East . . . We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour-books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.”