The Summer that Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel
I was contacted by the author, and provided a free Advanced Reader Copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you so much to the author and the publisher for allowing me this opportunity. These circumstances have, in no way, affected my review.
“But who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most?” – Mark Twain
Dear Mr. Devil, Sir Satan, Lord Lucifer, and all other crosses you bear: I cordially invite you to Breathed, Ohio. Land of hills and hay bales, of sinners and forgivers. May you come in peace. – with great faith, Autopsy Bliss.
And so begins a tale even the best of us will remember. In 1984, Autopsy Bliss invited the devil to his hometown so he could comfort himself: after an unfortunate mishap in judgment in his profession as a lawyer, Autopsy Bliss condemned an innocent man to jail. A man who later took his life; in his despair and the idea that certainty was little more than a farce, Autopsy hopes he will be visited by the devil in the hopes that when he will see the devil in all his malicious, wicked glory with horns and hooves, Autopsy will know that there is still some certainty left in the world- even if it is just the certainty of the existence of evil. His invitation is accepted, but not by a beast, no. In Breathed, Ohio shows up a terrible heat alongside a little black boy with brilliant green-eyes- malnourished, dressed in old overalls, and with a ravenous desire for ice cream. He claims to be the devil, and calls himself Sal – an amalgamation of “Satan” and “Lucifer.”
The Blisses take Sal into their home. Mrs. Bliss hasn’t stepped outside of their house in decades, an affliction carried over from a trauma in her childhood. Autopsy’s two sons, Fielding and Grand are as close as two brothers can be; Grand is a superstar, a god in lesser men’s eyes. Eighteen years old, the star in the school baseball team and a personality everybody is left charmed by. Fielding is thirteen; a friendship blossoms between him and Sal, each of them becoming a much-needed support system for the other, as Fielding tries to figure out if his new friend is really the devil, or just a runaway. Meanwhile, in this small, majority-white, conservative town, tensions are brewing.
“Sometimes I think older brothers should not be allowed. We fall in love with them too much. They are our everything, all the while, they hurt out of sight for our sake.”
The Summer that Melted Everything has two distinct timelines; one follows the story highlighted above, of childhood and growing up, of innocence and evil. The other story, integrated seamlessly with the first, follows a much-older Fielding Bliss- a bitter, angry man who is constantly haunted by his past. McDaniel realizes how different both tones, and thus both narrations are. She transitions brilliantly from one to the other. The former is told with a stunning simplicity and innocence; the latter with winding sentences and a narration that is captivating, but requires concentration for readers to grasp its sheer complexity. McDaniel’s voice is reminiscent of only one other author whose work I genuinely idolize: Donna Tartt. The atmosphere painted, how each word serves its purpose, each element working together like a well-oiled machine to churn out a masterpiece.
“What I’ve just described is the town of my heart, not necessarily the town itself, which had an underbelly that knew how to be of mood with the mud. Just as in every other small town and big city, the women cried and the men knew how to shout. Dogs were beat, children too. There weren’t always mothers to bloom identical to the rose, and more often than not, there was no picket fence to paint.”
It’s true- there are so many elements to a novel, from a good storyline to well-developed characters to a smooth, flowing dialogue, and Tiffany has nailed each one on its head. The plot isn’t the most complex in the world, but it is not predictable either. The back-and-forth in timelines serves to give us little parts of the larger picture which we will later piece together with the help of the author. But perhaps more than this- what makes this novel really tick are the characters and the themes discussed.
The characters, from both our ‘heroes’ and the ‘villains’ are ridiculously well-developed. I felt like I knew each of these people- their motivations, their weaknesses, their qualities, everything. McDaniel has perfectly shown that black-and-white doesn’t exist within people; nobody is both pure good or pure evil. We are all complex human beings with good and bad inside us: in some people, the good supersedes the bad, and in others, the bad overpowers the good. There are some horrible people in this novel, yet the author and our characters remind us constantly that they are still human beings, with lives and loved ones, with their own reasons for doing things. These reasons may not be the best, and they obviously do not excuse the horrible things they do, but they exist. Just like they do in reality- nobody does something bad just because. They have their reasons, no matter how weak these reasons are to us. The devil is not a creature with horns and hooves- he is inside all of us, in our neighbors and class-fellows and teachers. But just like the devil fell from grace, from being a good angel to a shunned sinner, people are never all-evil, even if they are bad people. That is not how humans are programmed.
“I look back and think of all the ways he wasn’t the devil in that moment. The devil would break a dog’s neck, not cradle it in his own. The devil would have a mouth comparable to a crate of knives, not a mouth with teeth that held the curves of marshmallows. I think of all the devils I’ve seen in my long life. I know now how brief the innocent, how permanent the wicked.”
With regards to theme, The Summer that Melted Everything deals with so many important issues that were obviously important back in 1984, but are also unfortunately still relevant 32 years later in 2016. Issues like racism, homophobia, AIDS, domestic violence, abuse, religion, judgment- issues dealt with such brutal honesty that they are bound to make the reader uncomfortable. And rightly so. Too often have we sacrificed discussion on ‘unglamorous’ issues for the sake of our comfort; novels which bring our shortcomings- as human beings and members of society- to the forefront are too important to ignore. This book is a 320 page novel, and usually I would say, “a short novel dealing with too much with too little,” but amazingly, I didn’t feel like that at all. Because McDaniel isn’t “dealing” with these issues- she’s integrating them so perfectly in the existing narrative that they feel like an integral part of the story rather than just important messages.
I would urge my followers to pick this book up. If you will EVER take a recommendation by me seriously, make it this one. I haven’t been this affected by a book since I read The Secret History by Donna Tartt a few years back. It has haunted me since I started it, and it will haunt me for much, much longer. What was supposed to be an interesting read for the summer has now turned into one of my all-time favorites. This is a book that is so well-written and mesmerizing in its darkness, in its ability to make its reader so disturbed, so uncomfortable that you will not put it down. And no matter what you feel after reading it – whether you hate it or love it – you will not regret having read it.
“There are no kings, there are no queens, there is just the unraveled, trying to live.”
The Summer that Melted Everything releases on July 26th. Look out for a Q&A with the author in the near future!