HTBAG - blog post graphicIn Summer Light, Zibby Oneal’s 1985 book about a seventeen-year-old girl’s season of self-discovery, is one of the last young adult novels that I read as a young adult.

In it, Kate Brewer, daughter of renowned painter Marcus, has been recovering from mononucleosis and writing a paper on The Tempest. Kate has a fractious relationship with her father because she sees the way the household is ordered around Marcus’s moods and because of how he treats the work of the women who surround him—his wife, his daughters.

Marcus is the kind of man who says things at dinner like, “Painting is like making love.”

He’s your basic old white man artist nightmare, and Kate is now mature enough to dislike the way he dismisses Kate’s mother, Floss—herself a former painter who now devotes herself to her garden and her husband’s moods. Marcus says of one of Floss’s canvasses:

“There were artists all over New York doing that those years. In fact, when I met Floss she was doing one. Remember that big thing, Floss? What did you call it? ‘Coney Island’?”

Kate’s mother paused, serving a spoonful of peas. “‘Jones Beach,’” she said.

“Oh, right. Well, I knew it had the name of some swimming place.”

In a few casually brutal sentences, Marcus dismisses the only painting that Floss has ever seen fit to keep.

Kate herself has tried to paint and encountered a similar reaction from her father, resulting in her giving up her artistic ambitions. But when graduate student Ian Jackson arrives to catalog Marcus’s paintings for a retrospective, Kate begins to reconsider how her choices are dictated by her father, and decides to explore where her talents lie.

At another point in the book, Oneal notes:

It was the sort of conversation that she and her mother sometimes had, not so much for the sake of what they said, but because their voices moving back and forth were a kind of touching.

In Summer Light is beautifully written. Sections from this book might seem at home in the pages of The New Yorker. Indeed, with its spare, evocative prose and the restrained feelings of its characters, In Summer Light is also for me associated with a certain kind of story about privileged white people. This level of spareness and restraint can only happen in the absence of having to explain the world in which the book takes place. The implication is that if the reader doesn’t understand the nuances and modulations, she should learn.

This is a setting in which the loudest noises come from the clink of wine glasses above the strained silence of a dinner party. The two “lower class” characters—housekeeper Mrs. Hilmer and her daughter Frances—are treated with disdain by Kate because they ask openly for what they want—they are too direct.
In the same way, the reader of In Summer Light is schooled to value what is unsaid and read between lines—sometimes, the relationship of text to reader is like the way Kate and her mother communicate, “not so much for the sake of what [is] said, but … voices moving back and forth.”

The reader builds meaning into the silence. She works to keep up with the prose—not the other way around.

This is not to say that I dislike In Summer Light. I loved it as a fifteen (or sixteen) year old, knowing that I didn’t understand all the currents and nuances swirling in its pages. I wanted to master this way of looking at and being in the world. And part of the answer, for me, was to stop borrowing books that were supposedly aimed at me.

On rereading, I still love In Summer Light because it is so insightful about the practical and emotional work that women do, because it captures so well that feeling of straining toward adulthood, of learning one’s worth and power. And yes, I love it now because it has kind of beautiful writing that I trained to appreciate after first having read it. But of course, part of that training is learning to look down on what In Summer Light is—a novel for teens, a book written by a woman for young women.

I’m going in circles, aren’t I? At least, that’s how I’ve felt trying to write this. But this is what I got from all of my reading and fancy degrees: that there are hierarchies. That epic poetry—by Homer, by Virgil—is more important than lyric poetry—Sappho. That literary fiction is better than genre fiction. That the genres most looked down on are mostly written for and about women and girls—romance and young adult fiction. And here is Oneal, who has written a book about young women and their work in a style that can be approved by men, in a genre that is not.

What I’m trying to say—what In Summer Light shows—is that a lot of the work of women is quiet or dismissed. And that women’s artistic output ends up being hushed or lost, too. It’s almost, almost as that work doesn’t exist:

“There were artists all over New York doing that those years. In fact, when I met Floss she was doing one. Remember that big thing, Floss? What did you call it? ‘Coney Island’?”

Kate’s mother paused, serving a spoonful of peas. “‘Jones Beach,’” she said.

“Oh, right. Well, I knew it had the name of some swimming place.”

In Summer Light met with acclaim after its 1985 publication. Oneal also had also written two earlier YA novels, The Language of Goldfish (1980) and A Formal Feeling (1982, nominated for a National Book Award for Children’s Fiction). She penned children’s books and non-fiction. A Google search revealed that she was still teaching writing as recently as last year. But despite praise for Oneal’s work, all of her young adult novels appear to be out of print.

About Mindy Hung

Mindy Hung

About Mindy

Mindy Hung‘s essays and articles have appeared in The ToastSalonThe New York Times, and many other publications. Her short (often very short) fiction has appeared in JoylandPANK, and The New Quarterly. She received a New York Foundation for the Arts fiction fellowship in 2010. Her literary novel, Trip, was published in 2012 by Outpost19.

Mindy Hung writes romance as Ruby Lang. Her latest title, Hard Knocks, released this week and is available at AmazonGoogle Play, Kobo, and BN.

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