Review: The Summer of the Bear

The Summer of the Bear
Bella Pollen
Grove/Atlantic
$24.00, hardcover, 448 pages
Also available for the Kindle ($9.99)
Release date: June 7, 2011

The Fleming family retreats to a family cottage in the Outer Hebrides following the death of Nick Fleming in 1980s West Germany. Accusations of treason and a suicide note from the diplomat lead his wife to question how well she knew her husband while her two daughters struggle to define themselves and her young son leaves clues for his “lost” father to find the family. As the Flemings arrive on the island, a tamed bear escapes from his owner and hides out in a sea cave. A strange connection forms between bear and boy as Bella Pollen weaves a sleepy sort of magic in The Summer of the Bear.

The novel moves at a well measured pace: slow but designed to capture readers. Pollen creates a world to spend time in. When she brings the main plot threads together, it’s with a feeling of moving the characters along to whatever waits for them after the last page is turned.

Pollen’s chapters alternate perspectives among the Fleming family. Letty pieces together evidence of Nick’s treason while shutting herself away from her children. Georgia, the older daughter, accompanied her father on a trip to East Berlin and knows something about the secrets he was keeping. Alba, the middle child, uses anger to keep her feelings at bay. Jamie is the special one; his mind doesn’t work the way it should and it takes him a long while to understand his father isn’t lost, but dead.

The characters could be written easily as stereotypes. The two daughters struggle to emerge as fully realized characters, with only Georgia achieving that successfully. Letty and Jamie, however, are very real. Jamie’s mental disabilities – which are never categorized clearly – could have made him too precious, but Pollen grounds his differences in having Jamie just be a child, fighting with his sister and looking for proof that his bear is real.

Jamie and his father were supposed to go to the circus on the day Nick died. Among the attractions was a bear act, and when Jamie sees a truck advertising a performing bear on the family’s trip to the island, he decides the bear will help him find his father.

The bear feels a connection to Jamie as well, and Pollen checks in with the bear in short chapters that may be too anthropomorphic for some readers but can be explained by the bear’s time with humans. Pollen stops short of delivering magic realism, but doesn’t offer explanations for everything either.

The Summer of the Bear has some flaws. The answers to Nick’s treasonous behaviors seem like an afterthought as the novel increases tension about Jamie and the bear. What Nick may or may not have done gives the other characters something else to do. An environmental MacGuffin near the end of the novel provides an excuse for Letty to leave the family cottage and not much else.

But the flaws are minor or, at least, don’t negate the engaging story Pollen tells. The Summer of the Bear is a novel to relish and to mourn when the last page is read.

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