Summer can be a tricky subject for a writer. There are so many ways a story might go wrong: nostalgia, lost love, all those tired, rose-colored filters — especially when it comes to childhood, or memory, or the past.
And yet, summer can be fraught also: wistful, even lonely. “[S]ometimes in summer,” E.B. White wrote in his 1941 essay “Once More to the Lake,” “there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods.”
White’s essay is one of the great pieces of summer writing, blurring the line between childhood and adulthood, and ending with the shivering “chill of death.” Something similar might be said of “This One Summer” (First Second: 320 pp., $17.99 paper), a graphic novel by the cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, which manages to evoke the nuances, the confusions, of a pair of characters on the cusp.
Revolving around Rose and Windy, two adolescent girls who are longtime summer friends, it comes billed as a graphic novel for young adults. But that’s really just a convenient box. Instead, like “Once More to the Lake” or Padgett Powell’s first novel “Edisto,” it is a story of loss and discovery, the inevitability of disappointment and accommodation — with each other, and ourselves.
To get at these textures, the Tamakis develop a couple of parallel narratives, one about difficulties within Rose’s family, and the other involving the teenagers who live year-round in the summer town of Awago Beach.
Both are elusive, not quite accessible. The world of grown-ups and near grown-ups remains slightly out of reach. Rose fights with her mother and pines for her father. She has a crush on the guy who works at the general store. Time passes in a tangle of frustration and small satisfactions, boredom mixing with familiar comforts and longings for something more.
The book evokes this most effectively when it is at its least verbal; early on, an eight-page sequence offers an array of images delineated only by what we might call time stamps (10:21 a.m.: Rose reading in bed; 11:08 a.m.: leftover breakfast dishes; 6:25 p.m.: her mother writing in a journal) that capture the aimlessness of a summer day.
And yet, underneath it all, there remains an exquisite tension — the tension of anticipation, the sense that change is coming, that even in this quiet landscape, the real world cannot help but intercede. This is the same tension that underlies any vacation or getaway, the realization that we can never escape, not really, that our baggage comes with us wherever we go.
That, of course, is why “Once More to the Lake” is so effective, because woven throughout its subtle movements is the understanding that time is ticking, that all this will end, will evaporate, that we are left with nothing, finally but the crucible of ourselves.
“This One Summer” is not so existential; it’s dealing with younger characters (and meant for younger readers), after all. But what the two works have in common is a relentlessly unsentimental vision, built around the dawning recognition that there can be no escaping, that everything counts in large amounts.