The Summer She Was Under Water
By Jen Michalski
Queen's Ferry Press
Reviewed by Michael B. Tager
Spending a weekend with family should, by all rational theories, be a pleasant event. The ideal family should have each other's welfare at the center of their being and should take measure of moods and concerns, inner turmoil and open nerves. In theory, time spent with family would, in a perfect world, result in a net gain of lovely memories.
This, obviously, is a flawed world view. While some families likely only benefit from close interaction, I don't know anyone like that and I suspect you don't either. And the family that Jen Michalski depicts in her second novel, The Summer She Was Under Water, certainly isn't one. They're messy and fractured and a far cry from healthy. There are bones in the cupboard and demons in the attic. Or in the lake, anyway.
But she hits the last wake—at least, the last one she remembers—and the biscuit flips, her body drilled underwater. The donut jars to a halt, and she struggles to reorient herself, swimming instead farther down into the lake. When she realizes her mistake, it is too late. Her lungs burn, and her eyes make out a dim lightness that she assumes is the distant surface. The light is broken by a body, and she feels arms around her, pulling her toward the surface.
The Pinskis, and the protagonist Sam(-antha) are trying their best. Sam's father is battling mental health challenges and alcoholism, her mother's trying to bring about harmony through sheer force of will. And there's Sam herself, who's in denial about so many problems, but not in denial of her denial. She's not looking forward to this family weekend and is certainly not keen on seeing her semi-estranged brother. She knows that the family's dysfunction is about to erupt, that there is a piper that needs to get paid; she just isn't keen on doing it. But what she shares with her parents is the acknowledgement that all is not sunny, despite the Fourth of July reverie in which the scene is set. The flawed-but-trying family dynamic is further rent open when Steve, Sam's brother and the black sheep of the family, arrives. And therein lies enough conflict for worlds.
What is it about siblings that brings out the worst in people? Is it the way they entwine familiarity and contempt? Is it the inherent power dynamic that so often pits elder against younger? Maybe it's the favoritism that parents so often (and rightly) refuse to acknowledge but is still often self-evident. In the case of The Summer She Was Under Water, it's all of the above, and more. There are secrets and hidden truths that are only gradually revealed. Every family has truths that are unshared, but in Michalski's world, these truths come out. It's inevitable, of course, but it is the slow burn, the constant ramping up of tensions and tempers, that makes the outcome as difficult to read as it is engrossing.
If he is coming, she is not sure what she will say to him. She does not even know whether she wants to see him. The past she thought she'd shed always seemed to slide down her neck and into the small of her back, her body tight, when she wasn't expecting it.
There are, of course, other elements at play besides familial tension. Sam's jilted fiancé is in town, to add irony and confusion. In addition to the jilted lover, Sam's brought along her local barista, a token of her moving on and embracing change: "'Sometimes it's easier to talk to strangers than people you know,' Sam said, tracing her fingers through the hard sand." These characters interact with the Pinski family, Steve in particular, in ways that ring perfectly true. No one's opinion is more cutting than a sibling's, no one knows how to tweak your friends and your loved ones like a sibling does. They understand blood and they understand how to make that blood boil.
Sam and Steve drive The Summer She Was Under Water. Steve is a well-drawn bad seed, a product of his own unaddressed id. He's a wellspring of parental abuse as well as uncompromising, unquestioning love. Sam is Steve's mirror image, introspective and self-loathing, unable to articulate her anger and resentment. Together, they form an enthralling unity. Without them, of course, Michalski's novel could not work. With them, it works perfectly.
That the novel is written in the present tense might be somewhat off-putting to those who care about such things, but Michalski writes it with confidence and grace. She engages the reader by employing simple language and sparingly poetic landscapes. Further, the tense and narrative are broken up periodically with a story-within-a-story that subtly comments on the frame tale, as written by Sam.
The novel-within-a-novel, a tale of male pregnancy and male desire, is an odd choice to disrupt the narrative and it may not work for everyone, but it is a deliberate choice that conjures up not entirely obvious parallels. It's a palette cleanser with purpose. What is Sam communicating in her writing?
He stands up and drops some bills on the table. He thinks maybe he could look up on the Internet how to kill it, but maybe the government would be monitoring computers and see that he was researching it. Maybe he could just keep drinking and smoking and poison it. Surely it could not stomach the levels of toxins he was used to ingesting on a regular basis.
The novel-in-a-novel is a weird tale, about an unlikable protagonist in the midst of a wholly alien world. The Summer She Was Under Water is not a weird tale, but there is a shared focus.
The intersection of family and sex and dysfunction is where The Summer She Was Under Water makes its bones. Jen Michalski weaves a familiar story in an unfamiliar light, making a family vacation at the lake so much more. And it is the quiet moments of reflection, where Sam gains understanding of her place in life, that breathe truth.