Summer Lightning is a historical novel centred on the lives of a family of Jewish immigrants.
Elderly sisters Sophy and Vivie meet in 2015 in New York City to exchange a shared portrait of their mother, Belle. The meeting triggers a narrative about the family across 40 dramatic decades, from the Great Depression to the 1960’s. Through the courtship of Belle and Isaac Kaplow and the horrors of losing Jewish family members in WWII Europe, to the lives and loves of their daughters, Summer Lightning paints a picture of America’s changing culture.
Silman’s characters are complex and deeply rooted in their times. Historical detail is woven seamlessly into the narrative, and the author demonstrates an expansive knowledge of history, literature, music and art. Although the Kaplow family is fictional, they interact with real historical figures, most notably the artist Larry Rivers, who paints Belle’s portrait and introduces her to his bohemian friends.
When Belle, Isaac, Sophy and Vivie’s emotional journeys take central stage, Silman’s writing is at its lyrical best; for example, when Vivie, keeping a secret from her lover, “brought a spoonful of sweet tea to her lips and let it fill her throat, as if happiness were something you could taste and had to make last as long as you possibly could.”
The novel has an episodic, linear structure, but jumps forward in years, which can be jarring, particularly when details skipped over at the time are mentioned as backstory. For example, when Vivie turns to Sophy for help, she’s unsure whether Sophy’s husband likes her, implying past difficulties that have had no prior mention. Frequent changes in tense disrupt the narrative flow. And while the opening chapter sets the two sisters in the 21st century, the novel ends abruptly in 1966, leaving many unanswered questions.
Overall, Summer Lightning is strong on historical insight, with flashes of beautiful writing, but structural weaknesses detract from the whole.
Also available as an ebook.