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At Summer’s End by Courtney Ellis

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At Summer’s End

by Courtney Ellis
August 10, 2021 · Berkley

Trigger warning for on-page suicide attempt

Claudia and I (CarrieS) are suckers for good historical fiction, good historical romance, and Beauty and the Beast retellings. So we were excited about At Summer’s End, in which an artist (Bertie, short for Alberta) takes a job at an English estate following WWI and meets an isolated, traumatized, and scarred survivor named Julian.

While this book did a decent job with the tricky themes of PTSD and disfigurement (up to a point – more on that later), it took a swerve in tone part of the way through and became increasingly concerning and frustrating.

Claudia: This book looked made for us, Carrie! I used to read a lot of historical fiction, and went in with high hopes. It fell into a damning in-between place, though, and in the end scratched neither my historical-fiction nor historical-romance itches.

Carrie: I was drawn to this book because I like Beauty and Beast stories and I liked the time period. For a while I enjoyed the sort of dreamy slow pace but then things went waaay off the rails.

Claudia: I love the Beauty and Beast stories too, because there’s so much that can be shown in terms of internal growth for both MCs. I also love that usually a “beast castle” setup provides lots of interaction between the characters.

Carrie: One thing I did like was that they got the whole business of Bertie seeing Julian’s face out of the way early on because his whole “OMG I’m so grotesque” business was met with her “Eh, I’m a nurse, dude, I’ve seen it all” attitude.

Claudia: I confess that I did Google how the masks were made, and what little is known about how and how often they were used. And yes, that was good, because that part did not drag for chapters and chapters and it got dealt with in a good way.

Carrie: I was pleased that in the book, credit was given to Anna Coleman Ladd, one of the artists who helped develop and design masks for veterans in real life.

The Penguin website lists this book as “Historical Fiction” and “Literary Fiction” to which, as a fan of both plus historical romance, I can only say…“What?”

Claudia: OK, if the book is marketed as historical fiction, then I need it to deliver a richer sense of place, and that was not there. I wanted more about the rules, habits, even the homes and the fashions of the time, and we got so frustratingly little of that. Castle Braemore, Julian’s ancestral home, could have been named Beast Castle and exist anywhere, suspended in time. There was very little context.

There was some meshing of actual historical figures in the story, with the sculptors and especially the woman sculptor that you mentioned. But Bertie, who Julian hires to paint Castle Braemore and its grounds, emerges as this fully formed painter with an independent streak and we have no idea how.

What we are shown at length are some of the other characters’ backstories, but their actions seemed disjointed, like they were going through the motions (slowly) to move the plot along and get to the apex of the story, but all that dragging meant that when we did get there I was a bit bored and not as invested in the characters.

So yes, I didn’t get a broader sense of the world as it was then, which is part of that steeping I like in historical fiction. In historical romance, I’m more apt to feel OK with an insular world, because the focus is so much on the relationship. So to me this book went wide, but not nearly deep enough.

Carrie: That’s a really good point. It touched on a lot of historical realities – changing norms for women, the treatment and lack thereof for WWI vets with PTSD and physical injury, the end of the big landowning estates…but it was so insular that what was happening to the characters on the page didn’t feel like an organic part of things happening around them outside of the estate.

Dear readers, we are going to be throwing in a LOT of spoilers from this point on, because somewhere around the 69% mark THINGS began to occur. Up until this point, more or less, the story had been a slow paced, dreamy romance in which Bertie develops new professional confidence and Julian heals physically and emotionally, but then truths come to light and some SHIT GOES ON.

The book was using the premise that love alone cannot cure mental illness, and Julian is dealing with some very difficult issues. I viewed this as a huge positive in terms of realism.

But then, close to the end, Bertie and Julian have a fight, Bertie goes back home, and:

Plot spoilers ahoy!

Julian gets better after all – but how? Julian got better through what? Was it love after all? Force of will? Honestly from the moment that Bertie left the estate I was lost.

Claudia: Exactly. It was even worse because Julian did most if not all of the work off page.

Carrie: I absolutely think that people can heal from trauma and I absolutely think that people who have experienced trauma deserve romance, and so do people with scars or otherwise unusual bodies. But we didn’t get to see the process happen. One minute Bertie is all “byeee” and the next minute Julian is saying that he’s much better now so they can get married. The end just seems like Bertie’s own wish fulfillment rather than any actual character arc.

Claudia: It was this insurmountable big thing until… it wasn’t.

As the book progresses we also learn some pretty messed up stuff about Julian’s family, his previous love life, and how the family has wielded their privilege in the past. Carrie and I became more and more angry as we read, realizing that a marginalized character was being fridged and that our protagonist, Bertie, was being alarmingly passive about her own fate.

plot spoilers again

Throughout the book, Julian’s sister Gwen appears along with her young daughter, Anna. Eventually we learn that Anna is Julian’s biological daughter. Her mother, Lily, was a maid, and died in childbirth after agreeing to give her daughter to Gwen in exchange for being set up in a respectable service position elsewhere.

We also get a surprise, somewhat secret pregnancy when Bertie has a fight with Julian and leaves the estate, only to find out later that she is pregnant. She hides this from Julian, although she’s pretty sure he knows of it because later on one of Julian’s lawyers meets with her to pay her for the paintings, and she’s visibly pregnant. Later in the book Julian confirms that he knew she was pregnant, but wasn’t ready to come to her.

Carrie: What did you think about Julian being the father of Gwen’s daughter? I found all of that to be problematic.

Claudia: Super problematic, and also, that whole story arc gave me anxiety!! Lily was a non- character other than being something in relation to the other characters — lover to Julian, mom figure to Julian’s sister, maid to everyone else. We never hear from her directly. Her voice is all filtered through one of the other characters.

Carrie: A major outcome of the affair is that Julian and Gwen’s sister Celia, who was a young child at the time and who depended on Lily for a lot of mothering attention given that her own mother is emotionally unavailable, loses Lily because of circumstances that Celia can’t fully understand. It bothered me that no one explicitly addressed the depth of Celia’s loss and instead she is blamed for the rift between herself and Julian.

Claudia: That brother-and-sister rift, by the way, is shown as pretty serious and long-running but it is another conflict that gets waved off at the end of the book.

I mentioned that the “romance” story arc between Julian and Lily gave me anxiety. That was mostly because I knew something terrible was going to happen, and I kept waiting to see how the power imbalance in their relationship would get addressed. It simply wasn’t. And Julian is supposed to be this sensitive, responsible guy. No. When it mattered most, he did nothing.

Then he essentially does the same thing to Bertie as he did to Lily: he deflects responsibility despite professing his love. Only in Bertie’s case with less dire consequences because she’s middle class and has the reluctant support of her family. Her parents (improbably, since they are shown as high sticklers) don’t shun her.

Carrie: Gwen, Julian’s other sister, arranged everything around Lily’s pregnancy. We don’t know how Lily feels about it, because she is one of the few characters who never has a point of view moment. Julian is passive throughout, allowing Gwen to make the arrangements and not saying goodbye to Lily because he is at the Front.

When Bertie gets pregnant, Julian arranges through his solicitor to have Bertie paid for “her work” (her art, but presumably also the payment includes a settlement on the baby). So he’s still deferring responsibility to others.

Carrie: At one point Julian tells Bertie,

I knew an end would come, and so I cared little for the consequences, not the least of which was falling in love with you.

Those consequences include people like Lily, and again Julian does nothing. The family mentions that when they have to move from their estate to a smaller home, some servants retired and others found new places. Again, there’s no acknowledgement of the stress and displacement experienced by people who had worked on one estate for generations. It’s another example of something being dealt with on the surface, so that the family seems responsible at a casual glance, while all the deeper emotions and implications are buried.

In reflecting on the lives of Lily, the servants who become displaced when Julian’s family moves, and the consequences Bertie experiences as a result of her liaison with Julian, the quote by Julian sums up the book, right? These people don’t have to care about consequences. And even when the family is supposed to experience a horrible disaster brought about by Julian’s continued inertia and leave their home, they wind up in a lovely new place. And Julian is supposed to be the hero?

Claudia: So many things happen off page that we needed to see: Julian hearing about the pregnancy, Lily’s point of view, Julian’s healing process after Bertie leaves. Even what healing process we did get to see felt very unsatisfactory.

Carrie: So here’s what I DID like: Bertie’s matter-of-fact reaction to Julian’s scarring as well as his PTSD, the insistence that love alone does not cure severe mental illness, the fairy tale-like, idyllic imagery of the estate and how it the setting of the estate works as a kind of sunshiny parallel to the fairy tale beast’s castle.

Claudia: I liked that Bertie was shown as a woman of agency, at the start at least, and was courageously trying to make a better life for herself. She keeps her eye on the prize (a fulfilling career as a painter) until the book seriously derails as we discussed under the spoiler tags.

Carrie: Honestly I would have given it a B- up until about 69% of the way through when the book swerved from a languid romance to an inexplicable, problematic soap opera.

The tonal swerves were jarring, and so much resolution was missing, especially the major plot points that were developed so painstakingly in the first two thirds. This became so upsetting to me, and was so awkwardly paced and written, that I had to drop the grade all the way down to a D.

Claudia: I agree with the grade. Finishing this book felt like a chore, even as I enjoyed Bertie’s growing self-confidence and the dreamy setting.

I just couldn’t get past its many unresolved conflicts: the book paints itself into several very dark corners, only to quickly sketch make-believe trapdoors for itself. And we haven’t even talked about the eleventh-hour twist, which felt like the latest in a string of “one more thing” moments.

Carrie: We have left so much out of this review – the plot just crammed things in as the book went on, and unfortunately that meant that none of the issues raised in the book were properly unpacked in the end.

I fell in love with Beauty and the Beast stories as a teen, during a time in my life where I believed that my physical appearance made me unloveable. We need more stories that give realistic representation to people with physical and mental illness, and at first the book did well. Julian’s lover was not at all put off by his wounds and she couldn’t fix his PTSD solely by being loving. Julian’s symptoms were common to WWI vets. Bertie was not shamed (by anyone other than her mother) for her ambition.

However, because this book starts fridging characters, dropping plot points, and throwing other plot points into the story at random, it ended up being insulting. So much good potential is lost because of un-represented points of view and a lack of on-the-page character development, not to mention a hero whose behavior is consistently not heroic. I will sum up this book: gardens are pretty, war is hell, and rich people always land on their feet.

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