Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen

The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen
Copyright 2011
Pan Macmillan - Fiction
441 pages

This last one had set him thinking. Lately he had taken to wondering what exactly the Cold War was. That it was so dubbed because it took place in snowy countries like Germany, Siberia and Russia was obvious. But so far as he could glean, it was not a war that involved trench foot or parachutes or Lancaster bombers. He had yet to wrap his brain around the concept of an amorphous conflict of counter-ideology and misinformation and so he had no pictorial backdrop against which to imagine his father.

--p. 226

I'm going to defer to the publisher's description of The Summer of the Bear because it's one of those rare cover blurbs that's so very well-written I don't think I can improve upon it:

In the summer of 1979, a tamed grizzly bear is tempted by the lure of freedom and the wild open sea . . .

Meanwhile, the sudden death of British diplomat Nicky Fleming has left his wife closed down with shock. Relocated from Cold War-riven Germany to a remote Hebridean island, Letty Fleming is haunted by the unthinkable - was it an accident, murder or suicide? And how can she ever begin to explain to her three children that their father may have betrayed his country?

As the family's secrets threaten to tear them apart, it is only the strange but brilliant Jamie who manages to hold on to the one thing he knows for sure: his father has promised to return, and Nicky Fleming was a man who never broke a promise . . .

First things, first: The Summer of the Bear is a genuinely suspenseful, emotional story that is partly about a family torn apart by grief, uncertain what even happened to their delightful father/husband, but it's also a bit magical or mythical in combining the family's story with the tale of a bear who broke his tether and swam away from his owner. The owner is a wrestler who tirelessly searches for his beloved pet and he floats in and out of the picture.

When I got to the point that I figured out just how the bear fit in, I think I may have even said, "Oh!" with a bit of a sigh, aloud. I can't tell you about it for fear of spoiling the magic of this book, but it is absolutely enchanting and I'm in awe of the author's imaginative exploration of two rather disparate real-life events and a fictional family.

The characters in the Fleming family and those around them are all fascinating. Mother and new widow Letty is completely paralyzed by her loss, so much so that she ignores her children and they eventually have to find their own ways to cope. Georgie, the eldest daughter, is the calm and even-tempered one but her greatest desire is to escape the stifling atmosphere of her formerly-happy home. Middle child Alba only knows how to express herself with anger, lashing out with caustic words and physical harm to the younger brother she believes has always taken too much of her parents' attention. And, young Jamie appears slow, but he's really very aware; he's just very literal. I got the feeling he might have some sort of condition like Asperger's because he was obviously sharp but misunderstood.

At the beginning of the book, the family is moving to the Outer Hebrides from London. Father Nicky was posted to a diplomatic position in Bonn, Germany, for many years and they were only in London temporarily, after his death. The Hebrides are home to Letty and she goes there for her own comfort, not realizing that pulling her children away from their home and friends is like a second death to them.

And, the bear . . . oh, the bear. You will love how the bear ties in. The Summer of the Bear would make an excellent choice for discussion in a reading group. There are many little things that are unexplained and draw you through the book. And, when you get to the point that those questions are answered, the answers are surprising, yet they make utter sense.

One of the best aspects of this book is the deceased character, Nicky. He is a character who is only seen in remembered conversations, of course, but he's so vibrant and clever and downright lovable that getting to know him helps to magnify the meaning and depth of the family's grief. I was unfortunately able to relate to the loss of such a dynamic individual and how it causes a family to come unglued until each member can find something solid to hold onto as that's what happened to my own little family when my father died. He was such a colorful, ebullient, lovable man that my mother was stricken much like Letty, although she didn't have the ability to let the loss overwhelm her because of the cancer diagnosis that forced her to stiffen her resolve to keep going. I can imagine how she might have melted under the agony of her loss, otherwise.

The bottom line:

Highly recommended; would make an especially good group read. A captivating, suspenseful, magical, near-perfect read about a grieving family and a grizzly bear, set during the Cold War. I didn't understand who the wrestler was till the end; I think that could have been made a bit clearer. Otherwise, I thought the story was simply breathtaking.

Side note:

I was offered a copy of The Summer of the Bear for review by the author and I turned her down, even though the story sounded marvelous. Obviously, I had regrets. I immediately put the book on my wish list but didn't manage to acquire a copy till we were in England and I spotted it on the racks. The author lives in London and I presume she's better known there than in the U.S. I'd certainly never heard of her, but I think she is very deserving of wide recognition and I hope she'll become known, here. The Summer of the Bear is definitely one of my favorites of 2011.

Speaking of favorites:

I'd like to write up a list of my favorites for the first 6 months of 2011, but I've got such a review backlog that I may not get around to it. I may end up doing a few mini reviews in order to catch myself up. We'll see. Although I normally try to stick as close to reviewing in the order read as possible, there are so many in my sidebar that I'm going to allow them to call to me in whatever order they choose.

Cover thoughts:

At left is what I presume to be the American cover. I like it but it doesn't really say anything about the book, to be honest, whereas the British cover (the one at top left, which is also the copy I purchased) fits the setting and speaks to me of the innocence of young Jamie, although there's not a scene in which he plays with a tire on a beach, as far as I can recall.

I've found that I do tend to like British book covers better than their American counterparts, but I'm not always certain quite why.

Since the cover leads to the topic of beaches in Great Britain (Is Scotland considered part of Great Britain or is it the UK? I always get confused about that . . . ) here's a shot I took of the beach at Minehead in Somerset:

There is a tremendous amount of achingly beautiful scenery to go along with all the amazing history in the UK. I think that's one of the reasons I've continued to find myself drawn back, even though there are many other places in the world that I'd like to travel.

©2011 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email bookfoolery@gmail.com for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. You've convinced me to add this to my wish list.

  2. Very nice to read your thoughts on this book. I absolutely loved it, and found the story fascinating. Do have to say that I like the alternate, American cover -- if you see it up close, you notice the details wound through it (it's the cover my copy has, so I was able to work out the details in it).

  3. Kathy,

    Yay! It seems like your kind of book, really. I hope you love it as much as I did.


    I didn't even think about that - that seeing the images on that cover might make better sense of the artwork. Wasn't it a wonderful story? So unique. I had no idea where she was taking me, as I read, but I enjoyed it so much. And, then, when she answered all the lingering questions, I was just blown away.

  4. Is it going to make me cry?

  5. Carrie,

    It didn't make me cry, in spite of being moving and heartwarming and poignant -- all the usual emotional adjectives.

  6. I'm going to get a copy of this book! It sounds fantastic thanks to your beautiful review!

  7. This book was already on my radar, but your review has convinced me I must read it!

  8. Les,

    Cool! I hope you like it as much as I did. As fictional grief goes, I think it's stellar. Each member of the family reacts in a very different and personal way, which I thought was honest and believable.


    I am very happy to have knocked you over the edge from radar to must-read. I thought The Summer of the Bear was wonderful.

  9. Though it seems a little strange, your review makes me think that I really need to read this one. I can't imagine how the bear fits in with the rest of the story, but I want to find out! This was a wonderful review, and makes me curious about a book that I had not ever heard of before. Thanks for sharing your insight on it with us! I also loved the photo!

  10. Zibilee,

    LOL I know . . . sort of vague, but I had to keep it that way to avoid ruining the book for anyone. All I can say is that I think the bear's role is clever and heartwarming and meaningful. I hope you do read the book.

    Thank you! England is very photogenic! :)

  11. Fabulous review! You've convinced me - I went straight to the library website and put it on hold.

  12. Alyce,

    Thanks! And, wahoo! I can't wait to hear what you think! :)

  13. I LOVED this book! I have a review scheduled, and I certainly plan to read more by Pollen!

  14. Jenclair,

    Wasn't it just amazing? I was so impressed. I've got another of her books on its way to me, right now. Can't wait to read your review!


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