Inside the 409-page A Summer Affair is a smaller book struggling to get out. Despite Susan Wiggs’ fine writing and a bang-up ending, its slow pace, plus some unanswered questions, resulted in this book’s three-heart rating.
Blue Calhoun is a physician in post-Civil War San Francisco. While part of his practice is with San Francisco’s Nob Hill aristocracy, the segment that is important to him takes place at the Mission Rescue League, which he founded. No one ill or injured is turned away from the Rescue League, no matter if they are prostitutes, Chinese, or just wretchedly poor. But even his pro bono work at the Rescue League is not enough to assuage Blue’s guilt over his wife’s death, he feels compelled to troll the “seamy underbelly of the city, night after night, to find the sickest, most hopeless souls” and try to heal them.
On one of these expeditions, he comes across a young man being shanghaied by a pair of notorious ‘crimps.’ Even though he knows that saving one man will hardly stem the tide of abductions, he buys him from his kidnappers for $50. The young man almost immediately jumps from the cart and disappears into an alley, only to ambush Blue in his dining room, perhaps an hour later, with a demand that Blue treat his gunshot wound. Why would the boy first run from Blue, then invade his house and ask for treatment? I wondered, but Ms. Wiggs never explained.
With the boy holding a gun on him, Blue takes him to the surgery in his home and removes the bullet, making a surprising discovery in the process. Not only is his patient a woman, but Isabel Fish-Wooten’s disguise was good enough to fool the doctor until he started wrapping a bandage around her chest.
When Blue and his nurse start talking about notifying the authorities of her shooting, Isabel pulls a gun and flees, but not far. She has lost a lot of blood, and the gunshot wound is beginning to infect. She makes it to the storage shed outside a nearby church and collapses.
Blue’s fifteen-year-old son, Lucas, and his friends got drunk on the church’s sacramental wine, and Lucas has been doing yard work at the church as a penance. When he puts his tools away that evening, he discovers Isabel, barely conscious and very sick. He picks Isabel up and brings her back to his home where he installs her in his mother’s bedroom. Lucas’ mother…and Blue’s wife, of course…died ten years ago, but Blue has preserved her bedroom just as it was when she died. Lucas is not just helping a dangerously ill woman, he is making a provocative statement: it is time for Blue to move on with his life.
The scene has been set for a slow-moving romance. Both Blue Calhoun and Isabel have Pasts, which they refuse to discuss and which, they think, make it impossible to enter into a continuing relationship.
In the very first chapter, the reader is told that Blue’s efforts are, in some part, atonement for a mistake he made a decade earlier. More clues come thick and fast in the chapters that follow but, in a time-honored romance convention, we are left to wonder exactly what part he played in his wife’s death. I have no argument with that convention, but when the reader finally gets the full story, it should be a dramatic moment, preferably one that changes the dynamics between the lovers. Not in A Summer Affair. After tantalizing us for 160 pages, we get a flashback, told from Blue’s point-of-view, brought on by a chance encounter with a former commanding officer. No drama there to account for the 160-page build-up.
As for the secret in Isabel’s past – that her mother abandoned her to a workhouse when she was a small child – rather than being an irredeemable failing on Isabel’s part, I thought it admirable that she had pulled herself up by her bootstraps and made herself a highly socially acceptable member of society. No one, however, not even Blue, ever acknowledges her achievement. If her past was so damning, I wish one of the characters had explained it to this modern reader.
A Summer Affair is primarily a character analysis of Blue, Isabel, and their relationships with Blue’s rebellious son, Lucas. All of the action is concentrated in the first 80 pages and the final 100. While the character development is skillful and the characters themselves are attractive, 225 pages of character development made for an extremely unhurried read. The mystery concerning Isabel’s shooting forms a sub-plot, but this too moves slowly, only grabbing center stage 50 pages from the end of the book. Despite Ms. Wiggs’ fluent writing style, I have to temper my praise for A Summer Affair because of the slow pace and the unanswered questions.
--Nancy J. Silberstein