The Summer She Was Under Water
By Jen Michalski
Queen’s Ferry Press, 2016
193 pages, $16.95
Reviewed by A.K. Small

The Summer She Was Under Water, by Jen Michalski begins with a traditional premise—the dark ingrained secrets of an estranged family—but then veers off into a startling narrative thread, taking the reader on a strange and unexpected journey.  Sam Pinsky is a writer who has published a novel about a pregnant man. When she spends a Fourth of July weekend with her parents, brother, ex-boyfriend, and friend at the family cabin on the Susquehanna River, she must face her past and choose to either heal from its deep wounds or stay paralyzed by them.

Michalski packs a fascinating amount of material into four fictional days, all of which changes Sam’s perspective on life. Until this reunion, Sam had chosen to recoil from the nest, but the visit to the lake house wakes her. Michalski’s attention to detail and to the frail human psyche shines throughout these pages. There are no simple heroes or ogres here. Each character slips in and out of these polar opposite roles, exhibiting a complexity and depth, a beautiful gift in a novel. I also enjoyed the rich setting of the cabin, the lake holding its secrets, the parallels between what’s been drowned below the surface and what remains above it.

Most striking to me is how Michalski conveys her characters emotional complexities. For example, Sam’s father’s tragic descent into mental illness not only highlights Sam’s love for him, but for her mother too. Sam’s father becomes violent with his wife when he does not take his medicine and Sam is the only one who seems to be able to soothe her father’s anger. We see her hide her mother, then help her father swallow pills. Sam acts as a buffer between her parents, making her momentarily heroic. Yet in the next scene the ogress within her surges. Sam’s brother, Steve, takes a special liking to Eve, the stranger, making Sam jealous. It is the clever juxtaposition of the two scenes that creates the emotional layers.

The book brought to mind one of Alice Hoffman’s early novels, White Horses, perhaps because both laudably tackle a dark subject—incest. Yet here The Summer She Was Under Water falls short. While both novels successfully merged between the real and unreal to unearth the complexities of a taboo topic, I felt unsatisfied with Michalski’s use of a fictional pregnant man to explore forgiveness. Maybe I’m just more of a traditionalist.

I would rather have stayed grounded at the cabin with its literal and figurative fireworks. Michalski’s sense of place, of intimacy (Sam and her brother shared the same room for years and fought over which bunk bed to sleep in) were compelling, and a delight to read. So was the wide array of dialogue—Sam’s father’s unhinged words, his wife’s loving phrases, and Michael’s more uppity North Eastern discourse. There, I may have better understood the presence of the random barista, Eve, along for the weekend without apparent reason, except perhaps to implicitly allude to Sam’s homosexuality, which went mostly unexamined. That the act of incest is brutal and difficult to grasp is well known. But does incest change someone’s sexuality? What are the scars of living as a survivor or perpetrator? What effects linger, besides the most obvious, distancing and depression? More scenes between the characters, in the present, not the past, might have illuminated some of my unanswered questions.

Who needs the intermittent italicized narrative of Sam’s fictional pregnant man when the rest of the pages are so full of emotional twists and promises? I found myself vigorously nodding where the main character critiques her own novel: “Maybe it wasn’t such a great book, Sam thought as she let herself back inside, but she had needed to write it, even if its truths were cloaked in metaphor, in surrealism. But maybe if she heard the truth enough, she could let herself speak it, loud and clear.” Absolutely, I thought. I wished too for a clarity that never came.

Still, I’d recommend Summer to any reader who is attracted to meta-fiction and who loves a captivating family drama.