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In Clark's muted third installment to the Hill family saga, the clan gathers in Towne, Mass., for the summer. At the center of the story is Lily, the quiet matriarch who runs a fruit and vegetable stand; around her swirl Aunt Ginger (who is ill with cancer) and Ginger's daughter Betsy and granddaughter Sally, who come to visit from the West Coast. Sally spends most of the summer involved in an unlikely friendship with Cam, a math whiz Cambodian child who works for Lily at the stand. Alden and his grown children are back as well, though the men seem to be especially peripheral here, handing the focus to Alden's daughter, Julie, who is recently engaged to the mysterious (and possibly fictitious) Nicholas Davenant, a geologist who is in Siberia for the summer. The plot's slowness mirrors a lazy summer, and even if too many developments are saved for third act, readers who enjoyed the previous two Hill novels will be delighted to again dip into another unhurried and gently humorous WASP summer. (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Set in a small western Massachusetts town, this tale explores the relationships, intrigue, and everyday interactions of a single extended family over a two-month period. Cousins, uncles, aunts, and friends converge for the summer around terminally ill Aunt Ginger at the homestead of never-married Aunt Lily and her farm-stand produce business. Sally, Ginger's young granddaughter from California, develops a friendship with a spirited local child. Successful software entrepreneur brothers return home with supermodel girlfriends in tow, in a Winnebago that they park for the summer in their father's driveway, which elicits the ire of the local busybody. Julie plans an end-of-summer wedding to an Englishman whom no one has met, and many family members wonder if he even exists. Will her estranged mother return home from overseas for the wedding and cause great discomfort for her father and all the other family members? Will there be a wedding? This enjoyable book features a broad cast of characters, is well written, and is able to evoke the languid days of a summer vacation. Highly recommended for general fiction collections.
—Sarah Conrad Weisman
She swiped her brow, conveying the rose-and-honey scent that infused the skin of her hands most directly to her nose, and overwhelmed as if by a fermented draught of summer, she toppled over, sitting down hard on her bottom. She recovered herself and looked up and about with the immediate wish of having been left unobserved. Her position was not dignified; then again, she felt more comfortable resting on her haunches in the soft dirt than braced upon her knees with all her weight reliant on her toes, which were no longer quite so reliable as they’d once been.
An entire field of strawberry bushes swelled to surround her, row upon row swerving with the contours of the land. At present, there was no moderating breeze, no intervening frill of clouds, and the full strength of the midmorning sun had sapped any early freshness from the air. The edge of the woods, which bounded the field, was melting away, half-obliterated by a haze of overheated ozone. The particulars of branches and trunks, so various in their shades and shapes, looked still-wet, as if the scene was still flowing from from the brush of a watercolorist who lingered and retouched and would not be hurried that sultry morning.
Lily turned toward her house then as if to make certain that it, too, was not dissolving beneath the scorching day. The peaks and chimneys of the roofline were just visible from her present position, and she peered harder as if trying to determine whether her visiting niece, Ginger, was as yet awake and stirring within. Deciding to call her (having been debating all along when best to call and not being able to decide between catching her too soon or too late—for she felt there was no chance of getting Ginger at a good moment), Lily snapped open her cell phone and tapped a button.
“Ginger? It’s ten o’clock. I want to remind you; it’s time for your medicine.” Lily listened. “You’ve taken it all?” Lily listened. “I’m delighted if you say you’re feeling better, but don’t overdo it because you’ll want to be in good form this evening when Betsy and Sally are here. And tomorrow too, when the rest of them get there at Alden’s, and then there’ll be the parade, and after the parade, remember, we have a picnic.” Lily listened to Ginger’s reassurances about her fitness to withstand the demands of the following day. Indeed, Ginger wanted to know whether it was too late to enter a float in the parade. She had just been lying in bed thinking of how amusing it would be to make a giant gypsy moth caterpillar out of a long tube of duct-taped black plastic garbage bags supported by a dozen pair of black-tights-covered legs (everyone in the family would get to take part in this). She would give the creature its characteristic bristle by securing scrub brushes along the spine and attach big yellow eyes made from balls of yarn (she had spotted skeins of just the right shade in Lily’s knitting bag). Harvey, whom she could not quite picture being coaxed into wearing a pair of tights and consenting to huddle beneath a a sheath of garbage bags, would walk in front of the caterpillar waving a big green leafy branch beneath its nose, which would be cleverly fashioned out of a paper towel tube, like a snout. Ginger was certain they would win some sort of prize if only all of this could be organized at the last minute.
“They’ve never given out parade prizes,” Lily told Ginger. One could only imagine the arguments and hurt feelings and machinations.
“Perhaps we shall inspire them to create one,” Ginger said.
Lily turned toward the woods, noting, above the shimmer of tree tops, the thrusting pinnacle of the very cell tower which was making this conversation with her niece possible. Lily wasn’t quite sure how that business all worked, but she understood satellites were involved, and even as Ginger lay upon her bed just a few hundred feet away from the strawberry patch, the words passing between them were being sent bouncing off into the deepest reaches of space only to come bounding back again, or something like that. Last winter, when the argument had taken place over the optimum siting of a very necessary new cell tower in Towne (which had been erected in Lily’s own High Field), opponents had spoken disparagingly of raising another Babel Tower, but in Lily’s opinion, the structure radiated pure intelligibility. Since its appearance, at last bringing reliable cell service to the area, she had fallen into the habit of calling herself when she was out and about during these long summer days to leave messages and reminders on her own answering machine; Lily, it’s Lily (she called herself Lily). Order more wooden pint boxes; Lily, pick up the dry cleaning or they’ll start charging you storage; Lily, ask Mr. DeSouza what he thinks of Silver Queen corn instead of Platinum Lady. I myself am conflicted in this matter. Lily had discovered that she very much approved of any and all of these new methods of keeping in touch, whenever, with whomever, wherever, whether or not they were even there, and in recent years, almost everyone she cared about had been very much elsewhere. Words could be planted on a spool of tape or left embedded in pixels upon a screen in a way which struck Lily as being almost organic; they would sprout into speech or text in due time. Well, here she belabored the point but she knew what she meant in terms she could appreciate, and furthermore, the much-derided cell tower (which was going to be such an eyesore, its opponents charged) made her think of the Eiffel Tower; the local edifice seemed quite as intricately assembled and loftily ascendant as the original, if lacking a certain panache. But then again, the Eiffel Tower only served to let one know one’s whereabouts in a tourist’s Paris; if one kept that exclaiming silhouette always in sight above the rooftops, one could get back to one’s hotel without having to ask a native (for even if successful at framing the question, one found oneself at a further loss after attempting to act upon the ungrasped answer). The High Field Tower performed multiple marvels of function and usefulness, and not only that, the communications company had to compensate Lily for the use of her land. Another check had arrived in the mail just the other day. She had torn open the envelope bearing GlobaLink’s imprint, frowning with annoyance because she had sent them last month’s phone bill, only to discover, written below a perforated line, Pay to the Order of Lily Hill. She and Ginger had had a conversation about whether there was any nicer surprise than that of money arriving out of the blue, and aside from the unexpected appearance of a loved one upon the doorstep, they gave a monetary windfall second place, although depending upon the particular loved one who had resurfaced, in certain instances, Ginger said she would prefer the cash.
“Besides, they don’t allow last-minute parade entries,” Lily told Ginger now. “You had to have applied and submitted your idea to the design committee, so don’t run around collecting scrub brushes and balls of yarn and pairs of black tights. Besides, it’s too hot for you to be exerting yourself. Find a shady spot on the terrace and just sit out there and read your library book.” This suggestion was met without protest, and Lily rang off, reassured, or as reassured as one could ever be with Ginger, who would do as she pleased. Ginger had always done as she pleased, but these days she was being more pleasant when ignoring sensible suggestions.
Lily resumed her strawberry picking. She propped herself on her knees and toes and readdressed the thicket before her, methodically making her way down the long row, filling one flat and a second and a third, which she left where they were, too heavy and mounded with berries to be lifted by her; she could haul them along just so far and no farther before abandoning them below the entangling vines. She snapped open her cell phone and tapped a button.
“Thanh? I’m finished up here. I need you to swing by with the tractor. What are Om and Tru up to? They’re in the barn? Well, in that case, who’s looking after the farm stand? Who? Oh. Oh dear. Whose idea was that? Yes, well I’m sure she wanted to. I’m sure she said she could manage. I’m sure it was her idea. I’m just not sure it was a very good idea.”
The farm stand was known to all as the Farm Stand. Lily had tried to come up with a better name but she had not succeeded, Vegetable Kingdom being the sort of thing she and her immediate circle had thought of; also Salad Days, Lettuce Berry U, and Faith in a Seed, which last suggestion her brother Harvey had said sounded just plain odd, but he was getting back at Lily for snorting at his Lettuce-Berry idea, which he had liked well enough to filch from his wife’s list of possibilities, although Penny had only been amusing herself at Lily’s expense—for Penny admitted that she had initially felt rather blindsided when Lily suddenly upped and announced her ambitious plans to start a new business. Penny would have said that she was supposed to be the lively and enterprising old lady, whereas Lily had always been the reliable and constant presence by whom one set one’s watch and moderated one’s opinions and calculated one’s contributions. Penny had more seriously proposed The Busy Bee as a name, saying she would be confident of any commercial establishment that chose to call itself that, and certainly bees were agricultural. Nothing could flourish in nature without the timely interference of a busy bee, although she’d read somewhere that busy was a corruption of buzz, and wasn’t it funny how words and the way we speak them could change even in the course of one’s own lifetime; take a word like special, which used to signify something other than its current use. Nowadays, upon being notified something or someone was going to be special, one knew to brace oneself to be especially kind and patient and uncritical. Harvey would have to be reminded beforehand to be nice and again be spoken to about it, once they got there.
In the end, the length of barn board set aside to serve as the sign, and the size of the letter cutouts included in the commercial-grade stencil kit she had purchased, had decided matters for Lily. There was not even space for a The (The Farm Stand). However, she had regarded the venture as more of an a (a farm stand), for she had not been convinced that any of this was going to amount to anything anyway, and then, even when things had taken off, she continued to hold to that first modest line. She was, at the time, approaching her seventy-fifth year and had not felt the need to prove anything to anyone, although there were those who seemed set upon viewing her as an elderly prodigy. People did not mean to but nevertheless they managed to come across as being quite condescending, Lily thought. They had exclaimed over her as if she had just learned to tie her shoes and spell her name—or perhaps they had exclaimed because she could still reach down to tie her shoes and was, as yet, deemed capable of affixing her signature to binding legal documents. For she was now an “Inc.” Harris DesMaris, her lawyer, seemed to believe that this Inc. status would stand between Lily and the rest of the world should she ever be sued, and he had described circumstances in which others in her position had lost everything. A person who slipped on a pea pod (say) could end up owning her house. Lily might once have objected that anyone who had a problem remaining upright in the vicinity of a fallen pea pod would find all the steep staircases and uneven floorboards in her house even more troublesome, but early on in the process of setting herself up in business, she had learned not to protest that human beings, when massed into that entity known as the general public, could possibly be so stupid or grasping or wicked as the law anticipated. Harris, whose business this was, knew better than Lily—or, perhaps in this matter, he could be said to have known worse.
The stand, located down on the River Road at the end of Lily’s long driveway, was built of rough boards with an original gravel floor long since trampled away to hard-pack dirt eight years on, by this the 1999 season, which had commenced over the Memorial Day weekend, when kale and early peas and bouquets of lilac were just ready for sale. A pair of big maples loomed over the roof shading the shingles, which had weathered silver and mossy and porous in places. The outside front-corner post of the structure bore splintery dents at rear-bumper height; parking could be a problem on the weekends, in part because everyone drove around Towne in those big, oblivious vans and Jeeps. There was a notice saying Please Do Not Block the Driveway, which was often ignored or reasoned away (We’ll only be a minute). This would make Harvey roar, should he be denied free passage driving in or out (for Lily had agreed to let them share her driveway when he and Penny, just lately wed nine years earlier, had built their new house up on the ridge behind her house). Whether or not he was in a hurry to get someplace, Harvey didn’t think he needed to assess the urgency of his errands and appointments while some bounder lingered over a purchase. But the more considerate people stopped on the road when the parking lot was full and they walked the extra distance alongside the river, which ran darkly and fluently through this stretch of country, overhung by a line of moody hemlocks and larches.
The front of the stand was comprised of shutters which lifted up and were secured by hook-and-eye latches. The produce was arranged, or heaped in the case of peas and shell beans, on a single level of broad shelving set at the height of a tall person’s waist. This shelf sloped forward in an offering manner, although the incline could also be treacherous. Rounded produce, the tomatoes and apples and acorn squashes, would tumble and roll when a balance was disturbed, and their fur- ther tumble was not necessarily contained by an edging lip of ogee molding. “That always happens,” Lily would say, when this happened. There was space beneath the shelving for bushel baskets and crates that held more of whatever was presented above. Often, customers rooted through these reserve baskets and crates, motivated by some personal maggot of human nature that Lily did not fully understand. How had they come to believe something better was being deliberately kept from them? She found their suspicions aggravating, and sad as well, although on the whole, she had to say she found these people more aggravating than sad.
Everything was clearly labelled as to specimen and price per pound or unit, written with a black marking pen on the backs of cedar roof shingles of which Lily possessed the lesser, and lessening, part of a bale, up in the barn. The shingles were affixed to the walls with banged-in nails. A claw hammer and the bag of nails were kept handy at the counter for this and other purposes; bits and pieces of the rough stand structure sometimes sprang loose and needed to be pounded back into place.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Nancy Clark has been compared to Jane Austen by The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. Do you think that this is an apt comparison? In what ways does Nancy Clark’s writing echo Jane Austen’s? Are there any marked differences?
2. The book and its postscript are each preceded by epigraphs that are taken from Emily Dickinson poems. Why do you think that Nancy Clark has included these epigraphs? How do they relate to the story?
3. Aunt Lily’s farm stand seems to be a character of its own in July and August. Discuss its inner workings. What role does it play within Towne and within Lily’s family? What do you make of the little girls’ rhyme signs and evident enjoyment of their work there? Would you like to shop at the Farm Stand? Do you think that Aunt Lily would approve of you and your manners?
4. What clues does the author provide to indicate that Ginger’s health is failing? How does she convey that it’s getting worse? The author remains vague about the details of Ginger’s illness, never using the word “cancer.” Why do you think she does so?
5. Although Betsy knows that her mother is sick, she decides to travel with Sally to Towne by car, thereby extending her journey. Do you think there’s a reason she’s delaying her arrival? Why?
6. Ginger apologizes to Cam for Sally’s rudeness when the two girls meet [p. 71]. Why does Ginger feel that Sally is being rude? What’s Cam’s reaction? Were you surprised by it? Discuss the relationship between Sally and Cam. In what ways do they find each other’s presence a challenge to their status within the family circle? Are there moments when the girls seem more like rivals than friends? Describe some of them. Do you think that Sally and Cam are fully realized characters within their own right, with thoughts, emotions, and desires that are nuanced and believable?
7. Betsy’s parenting style seems drastically different from Mrs. Samrin’s. In what ways? Did you think that Sally and Cam were allowed to wander too freely without supervision? Why? Does this kind of permissiveness feel old-fashioned to you, or do you feel Mrs. Samrin and Sally’s great aunts were justified in treating the children in this way? What do you think Nancy Clark is suggesting about childhood? What types of things were both the adults and children able to learn when the children were allowed to explore freely?
8. What was your first impression of Petal and Tarara? Why do you think Tarara storms out of Towne? And why does Petal elect to stay? Did your impression of her change as the novel progressed? If so, how?
9. Alden seems to have withdrawn from many aspects of daily life. What accounts for his withdrawal? Do you think that his reasons are justified? Why? What do you make of Lily’s attempts to create a romance between Alden and Hannah? Based on the author’s use of cold-fish imagery both at the picnic and later, in Hannah’s kitchen, how do you think she views this non-romance? What do you make of Hannah’s belief that she might mistakenly reanimate a poached fish some day? What is the author saying about the future of Alden and Hannah?
10. Lily doesn't contradict a blind southern lady who refers to Cam as "a real fine little Yankee girl you're raising up." Indeed, Lily expresses how reliant the family is upon Cam. What are some of the “Yankee” characteristics that the Southern woman is praising? Do you think that it is significant that Cam is the child of a recent immigrant family? Why? What do you think the author is suggesting when recent immigrant characters (Mrs. Samrin and Calliope Kariotis) offer Ginger solace and remedies derived from their native cultures, which are gratefully accepted by the Hill family? Do you think this portrait of the reciprocal influences of old families and newcomers upon one another is a true reflection of the ongoing evolution of American society? In a book that is very much about the process of "growing up," what does this say?
11. Several of Julie’s family members, including her brothers, doubt that Nicholas Davenant exists. What evidence do they use to prove their case? Do you think that they have good reason to doubt Julie? What does Ginevra mean when she says that Julie may be doing “the wrong thing for the right reason,” if, indeed, she has invented Nicholas Davenant? What are Julie’s possible motivations for inventing Nicholas Davenant? What reasons does Petal give for thinking that Nicholas is real? Did you think that Nicholas Davenant was real?
12. Julie seems unenthused about planning her wedding. In fact, she can barely motivate herself to pick out a wedding gown, and when she attempts to draft her engagement announcement, she cannot seem to finish it [p. 198-200]. Why do you think that Julie has so much trouble with the wedding planning? Do you think her reasons are justified? Why?
13. Although Becky is thousands of miles away from her family, they all react to her absence. Discuss some examples. Why is Becky so far away from her children? How do her children feel about the choices that Becky has made in her life? Do you agree with them?
14. While Ginevra and Petal have already spent considerable time together, Ginevra only really begins to warm to Petal once they have spent the afternoon folding origami doves together. Why does Ginevra dislike Petal originally? What do you think accounts for her change of heart?
15. While Sally and Cam are playing in Lily’s house, they make a surprising discovery. What is it? And, what do they learn about Lily because of it? Were you as surprised by the discovery as Lily’s nieces were?
16. Babe Palmer seems to have an adversarial relationship with many members of the Hill family. Describe some of the reasons for this friction. Do you agree with the Hills’ reasons for disliking her? How did you feel about her?
17. While talking to Mrs. Samrin in the Casa di Napoli, Julie begins to weep uncontrollably. What makes her so upset? Why does Mrs. Samrin hope that “her own presence here on this rainy evening in this brightly lighted place could serve as proof to Julie that there was always cause for hope” [p. 245]?
18. Nancy Clark waits until the book’s postscript to reveal whether or not Nicholas Davenant exists. Were you surprised to learn the truth? Why or why not? Did learning the truth change your reading of July and August?