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Thursday, July 07, 2011

Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen

Bella Pollen's Summer of the Bear is my favorite book so far this year.   I finished it well before we left on vacation, but was (and still am) so far behind on reviews that I'm only getting around to it now.

When Nicky Fleming, the lovable husband, father, and career diplomat dies under strange circumstances in Germany during the Cold War, his family is left with too many unanswered questions.  The story examines the terrible grief of his wife and three children as they try to get on with their lives.

Each character, including the charismatic Nicky, is so beautifully wrought that each seems completely real.  Letty, his disconsolate wife, relocates with their three children to a remote island in Scotland's Outer Hebrides where Letty spent the best years of her childhood and feels safe in a community of odd and interesting characters.  Her hope is that the sanctuary of her beloved island will help heal her fractured family.

Georgie, the oldest daughter, has some secrets she is not ready to reveal about her trip to East Berlin with her father.  Alba, the middle child, is angry at everyone and everything.  Jamie, the youngest, never gives up hope that his father, who he has decided is on a secret mission, will return eventually.
Letty struggles with the accusation that her husband was a traitor.

And then there is the bear...

Letty, in her grief, becomes emotionally distant.  Georgie tries to maintain a kind of peace in the family.  Alba's anger finds many outlets.  Jamie trusts that his father will keep his promise.

The writing is beautiful, and I found the plot seamless.  Pollen mixes reality, mystery, coming of age, and myth with consummate skill.

Alba and Jamie take center stage--the girl with no faith left and the boy who subsists on faith in his father.  The two are often in conflict, at least on Alba's side.

"It annoyed Alba that people accused her of hating things indiscriminately.  It wasn't true.  She had her reasons for feeling the way she did and they were good ones.  For example, she despised over-polished furniture, easy-listening music and shiny food, as represented by, say, the glaze on doughnuts or the sweaty sheen of a tomato ring.  She resented fish, loathed any form of sentimentality and strongly believed that doors should be kept either open or shut, never in-between.  This short list, selected entirely at random, did not constitute the sum total of Alba's wrath at life.  Far from it.  Alba incubated a fresh grievance for each day of the week.  In fact, if someone cared to ask her--and God knows, she often wished they would--she could dredge up bona fide irritation for every letter of the alphabet."
Jamie is the most frequent object of her wrath.  And poor Jamie worships Alba.

The lack of communication that occurs after Nicky's death is in large part responsible for the misery his family continues to endure.  The author allows the information to leak out through each family member and through memories of their past in Berlin in such a skillful way that reader eagerly grasps each new piece of the puzzle.

Superbly written and masterfully plotted, Bella Pollen has completely captured me with The Summer of the Bear.  Highly recommended.

Fiction.  Contemporary Literature.  2010.  438 pages.


  1. Oh, favourite read so far this year is pretty much a great reason to look into.

  2. Excellent review, Jenclair! I'm not surprised it's your favorite, so far. I didn't get the wrestler's place in the story, probably because I read the intro and then was interrupted to rush through the airport, but I agree that it's really a flawless read.

  3. Kailan - Yep! Sometimes it is difficult to find a favorite, but not this time. Loved it!

    Nancy - It was interesting that the wrestler and the bear were a real incident in the island's history. Even the factual part that Pollen included is mythic!

  4. Oh I must add this one to my list. Hadn't heard of it but I'm intrigued!

  5. Iliana -- The book is so beautifully written. I took my time with it, instead of rushing through the way I usually do.

  6. Just found this review... my library doesn't have any copies of it, but I was able to put in a hold request for Hunting Unicorns, another of her books. I love the excerpt you posted; look forward to checking out this author.

  7. Anne - I loved the book and need to look for a copy of Hunting Unicorns. Let me know what you think of HU when you get your copy!