The Last Summer of the Camperdowns

  • Elizabeth Kelly
  • Liveright
  • 400 pp.
  • Reviewed by Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski
  • July 12, 2013

Family secrets bubble to the surface after a preteen overhears a violent crime.

In her latest novel, Elizabeth Kelly tells the story of Riddle James Camperdown, the girl’s earnest politician father, her acerbic movie star mother (once a movie star, the mother tells us, one is never a former movie star), and the terrible events of the summer of 1972.

Riddle, nicknamed “Jimmy” for her middle name (she’s improbably named for the union leader, Jimmy Hoffa), is a 12-year-old, neon-haired horse-lover growing up in the Cape Cod town of Wellfleet. A sympathetic loner among a flock of grownups too preoccupied with their own complex lives to pay her much mind, Riddle overhears a violent crime being committed. Fearing for her own life, she decides not to tell what she knows. The unfolding story burrows into new and long-buried secrets, both inside and outside of Riddle’s seemingly charmed family circle.

As Riddle narrates the events of the long-ago summer, the reader is treated to (or subjected to depending on your feelings about the kind of mother Riddle is saddled with) Greer Foley Camperdown. Greer is a woman for whom “… the only grand entrance that interested her was her own.” A great beauty, she treats her fellow humans with undisguised contempt. In particular, her sometime friend, neighboring horse-breeder and childhood pal Gin Whiffet often suffers her lashing repartee. Catching him in a gushing social moment, she chides, “Don’t forget to curtsy, Gin.” Riddle herself is not spared: “I’d like to think Riddle’s hair color is just a bad dream, but then garish reality intrudes.” When Riddle is plunged into the agonies of not-telling, and the reader begs her parents not to dismiss her moodiness as adolescent angst, Greer asks “[i]s this something Midol can handle?”

Some of Greer’s most trenchant one-liners are directed at her husband, the charismatic labor historian and amateur songwriter, Godfrey “Camp” Camperdown. They play off each other in drawing room dialogue reminiscent of the movies in which Greer starred at 18. At times the exchanges strain believability — no one could be that consistently witty — and at others they drag, as backstory is delivered in chunks of dialogue.

Running for a House of Representatives seat, Camp is a charmer with the natural politician’s ability to work a room and pry support from those who don’t necessarily embrace his left-leaning views. It falls to Camp to manage Greer (his campaign workers are terrified of her), but at her best she adds a grace note of fame and an icy allure to his candidacy. Riddle adores her father and puts up with his public life, preferring quiet moments together when he’s home from the campaign trail.

Riddle’s nemesis, the smarmy Gula Nightjar, is a well-drawn villain who uses little more than intimidation — staging odd dramas for Riddle’s eyes alone — to frighten her into silence. When Riddle falls into pubescent love with Harry Devlin, the son of Camp’s rich and powerful arch enemy, Michael Devlin, she has one more reason to cover up her secret, for Harry’s missing brother may have been the victim of the crime.

The language, at times brilliant, is studded with so many descriptive tours de force that the reader begins tripping over them. Less would have been much more. Some of the adventurous language leaves the reader befuddled: when we first meet Harry Devlin we’re told he sounded “the way a graham cracker tastes.” Later, Greer’s eyes “widened, and then elongated.” Fortunately, the writer lets go of her tendency to embellish as she gets further into the narrative.

The story’s violent end wraps up the story too quickly to be fully satisfying, leaving many unanswered questions, not the least of which is the implausibility of Gula’s apparent disappearance. Well worth reading for its exploration of a sensitive child’s interior life, the novel probes deeply into the far-reaching consequences of not telling when we know we should.


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