Surface Tension: A Novel in Four Summers

Surface Tension: A Novel in Four Summers

by Brent Runyon

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During the summer vacations of his thirteenth through his sixteenth year at the family's lake cottage, Luke realizes that although some things stay the same over the years that many more change.  See more details below


During the summer vacations of his thirteenth through his sixteenth year at the family's lake cottage, Luke realizes that although some things stay the same over the years that many more change.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Runyon's (The Burn Journals; Maybe) stirring coming-of-age novel is set at the lakeside cottage where Luke and his parents spend two weeks every summer. Each of the four chapters presents a different stage of Luke's adolescence between the ages of 13 and 16, tracing his emotional, hormonal and physical changes and his broadening perception of his surroundings, particularly the neighbors. There is the eccentric Richardson family, fastidious about their yard and cottage; a newcomer minister who marks his territory with a floodlight and Confederate flag; and a mysterious girl whose father allegedly stole Luke's father's barbecue. ("Her eyes look like an Egyptian queen's eyes. They're huge and brown and I don't know why, but I want to stare into them for as long as I can," Luke pines.) The detail-rich story offers the type of intensity that sneaks up on readers, not taking a firm hold until the end, when previous events take on new meaning. Despite the book's structure, the plot seems to move in a spiral, revisiting familiar landmarks that inevitably change over time and digging underneath the surface. Ages 14-up. (Mar.)

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Children's Literature - Amanda MacGregor
Every summer, Luke's family goes to their lakeside cottage for two weeks. Luke has always loved the quaint sights, the family rituals, and the idle days spent swimming and playing. The novel spans the course of four summers, starting when Luke is 13 and still enchanted by his summer getaway. He fishes, swims, skips stones, and observes his fairly mundane neighbors. By the next summer, Luke is growing irritated with his parents, is jealous of his neighbor's family, and is lusting after an older local woman. When he brings his best friend along during his fifteenth summer, even a companion his own age cannot stop Luke from feeling sick of everything and everyone around the lake. His family's visit the next year proves eventful, as Luke saves a little girl from a burning house and begins to mature emotionally. He still feels disenchanted by the lake and longs for the feeling he used to get there, but he comes to learn that nothing can stay the same. The novel is heavy on explication, with little outward action or even dialogue for long stretches. Outside of minor interactions with neighbors, Luke spends most of his time alone, feeling bored or restless. This boredom often drags the story down with it, making Luke's lazy summer days feel, at times, monotonous. Thankfully, Luke is a likeable and funny narrator who is able to carry the slow plot. His inevitable changing feelings about his family and their vacations, as well as his sincerity and introspectiveness are refreshingly genuine. Reviewer: Amanda MacGregor
VOYA - Laura Woodruff
This intimate, first-person account of a boy's coming-of-age by the author of The Burn Journals (Knopf, 2004/VOYA October 2004) takes the reader through four summers in the early 1990s. Beginning when Luke is thirteen and wants to hone his rock-skipping and fishing skills, the book progresses through mercurial puberty—especially sexual awakening—and ends with a major leap into the adult roles of respect for others and assumption of personal responsibility. In the process, readers become acquainted with Luke's parents, friends, and neighbors at the family cottage. Various personality conflicts, squabbles, and mishaps, physical and otherwise, are sometimes humorous and often familiar to any adult reader who remembers those developmental stages. This novel is clearly autobiographical. Episodic and reflective, the story is dated and lacks action for today's young reader. Although the book is a charming narrative, Runyon's emotional journey is better suited to readers of his own age who will relate to his experiences. Twenty-first-century young readers could find it boring. Reviewer: Laura Woodruff
School Library Journal

Gr 9 Up

Every summer, Luke and his parents take a two-week vacation at their cabin on a lake. The story follows the boy over the course of four summers: at 13, 14, 15, and 16. From early teen excitedness to midteen pretension, this is a subtle and often humorous portrait of how age influences one's outlook on life, friends, parents, girls, etc. Luke is delightfully honest (and frank), and a likable and realistic protagonist. Surface Tension offers readers an introspective glimpse into a pretty normal adolescent life, and it's likely to be enjoyed by teens who are in the throes of trying to figure things out for themselves.-Emily Chornomaz, Brooklyn Public Library, NY

Kirkus Reviews
Over four summers at a small cottage on a lake, carefree 13-year-old Luke, eager to locate the perfect "luckystone," turns into an adventurous 14-year-old who tries nonchalantly to sneak peeks at his neighbor's breasts and then an easily annoyed 15-year-old who realizes his parents' faults and just wants "to get the fuck out of here." The results of a near-disaster remind a love-crazed 16-year-old why the lake is still his "favorite place in the world." Luke's sharp, often humorous first-person narration ("It's not even the losing that bothers me that much. It's just how everybody turns into such an asshole when they're playing Monopoly") shows keen insight into a teenage boy's mind. But the teen's not the only one who's different each year. His once-annoying childhood friend, Claire, becomes interesting; his tidy-homeowner neighbor becomes exceedingly obsessed with his lawn; his parents suddenly seem like real people. With sensitivity and candor, Runyon reveals how life changes us all and how these unavoidable changes can be full of both turmoil and wonder. (Fiction. YA)
From the Publisher
Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2009:
“Runyon reveals how life changes us all and how these unavoidable changes can be full of both turmoil and wonder.”

Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, February 23, 2009:
"The detail-rich story offers the type of intensity that sneaks up on readers."

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

Random House Children's Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.82(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.83(d)
HL720L (what's this?)
Age Range:
14 Years

Read an Excerpt

My eyes are closed, but I know exactly where we are. We just left Purity Ice Cream, the only place we can get peppermint stick in the summer. Mom didn't want to stop, but Dad wouldn't listen to her. He's addicted to the stuff.

Mom whispers, "Did we really have to stop for ice cream?" She thinks I'm still asleep.
Dad says, "Give me a break. I've been looking forward to this for the last three hundred miles."

We turn right and head north up Route 89. It's only about a half hour now, but this part always seems like the longest part of the trip. The sounds of other cars and trucks are gone. Now it's just us and the old bumpy roads.

We swerve past Cass Park and the public pool. The yacht club. The Hangar Theater.
Now we're going up the hill, and the car has to work harder. Every turn I can picture it, even with my eyes closed. I feel like I can see every single mailbox and driveway and glimpse of the lake through the trees.

Only another mile until we pass the Glenwood Pines, where they have the best cheeseburgers and also that old bowling arcade game. I almost want to ask if we can stop, but I don't. We're too close.

The road tilts down and I can feel we're about to pass the Taughannock Falls Restaurant and State Park. The falls overlook is a cool place to go, but we can't stop there either.

The trees are thinning out and the sunlight is shining onto my eyelids. The car is going faster. Dad's pushing it. He wants to get there as bad as I do. And Mom wants to get there more than anyone. I hear the car blinker, and I can't help it anymore.
I open my eyes. The first view of the lake from high up on the hill. The smokestacks. The power station, like two fingers pointing to heaven. The way the road curves at the cornfield. The sign for fresh strawberries. The slow turn down toward the lake.

I say, "Do you know where you packed my bathing suit?"

"I think it's in the black suitcase, honey. Under the white T-shirts."

Dad turns off the book on tape because nobody is even listening to it anymore.
We're so close. The mailbox that's shaped like the house it's in front of. The place where that famous guy used to live. The old house that nobody lives in and looks like it's haunted. My parents' favorite restaurant. The chimneys on the Wirth mansion.

The place where the road dips and I lose my stomach. The house that looks like a tepee. The dairy farm and the old farmhouse. My favorite sign. The mailboxes all in a row right before the bridge and the creek. The right turn onto the dirt road.

Everything looks exactly the same as when we left. All the cottages are still here. The Bells'. The Vizquels'. The Richardsons' big cottage at the end of the lake, and our little cottage right here on the left. We park under the pine tree in front of the garage.

Here we are. We're back. It feels like it's been forever and no time at all.

I jump out of the car, take my shoes off, and sprint down to the lake. I'm not supposed to go on the Richardsons' property, so I run straight ahead to the pine tree and then turn left and run past the woodpile. The grass is cool and slick under my feet. It must have rained today. It feels like running on sponge. I'm careful not to step on any of the old rotten apples or in the hole where the tree used to be. I'm faster than I was last year, I can feel it, but when I get to the stones, I have to slow down. The stones kill my feet, but I keep running all the way into the water. I'm up to my knees. God, it's cold. I yell because it's so cold and step back out onto the dry rocks again. It's so much colder than I thought it would be.

I wait for the ache in my feet to go away and then run back to the cottage to get my bathing suit. I want to do everything all at once. Swim and skip stones and fish and go to the waterfall and cook marshmallows.

Mom and Dad are still unpacking the car. Dad says something about me having to help unpack, but I just blow right by and run into the cottage. Where did she say my bathing suit was? Under the black T-shirts in the white suitcase, or under the white T-shirts in the black suitcase? I'm pretty sure it's in the black suitcase, because we don't have a white suitcase.

I run back down to the beach, to where the good skipping stones are. I've got a system. I look for a stone that I can hook my index finger around. One that's smooth on both sides and thin, but not too thin.

I find a good one and stand sideways. I bring my arm back and whip it sidearm at the water. I snap my wrist so it's got extra rotation on it, and it flies over the water.
The stone slaps down, arcs back up into the air, then back to the water. I get four skips, which is okay, but not great. I do another, and it goes crazy and ricochets hard off the Bells' dock. I love that sound, like hitting a baseball with a wooden bat.
I pick up a perfect stone and whip it with everything I've got, but it just splashes. I can never get the perfect ones to skip.

I skip another one that bends between the pilings on the Bells' dock.

The next one skips a few times and then stops in the water like it hit something. I say out loud, "Hit a fish," but no one is here to think that it's funny.

I sling another perfect one and it catches the air wrong, turns sideways, and knifes into the lake. Damn, I can't do this anymore. What happened?

I think I'm trying too hard or something. I look back and see Mom and Dad are standing behind me. Dad has his arms wrapped around Mom's waist. Gross.
I stop skipping stones and go to work looking for a luckystone. A luckystone is just a normal stone with a hole in it that goes all the way through. I don't know why some have holes and other ones don't, but the ones with holes are rare, which is why they're lucky.

Even more rare than a luckystone is a luckystone ring, which is a luckystone that has a hole big enough to put your finger through it. I've never seen one of those.
My parents say this is the only place on earth that luckystone rings exist, but I don't know if that's really true. I bet I won't find one this summer.

From the Hardcover edition.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2009:
“Runyon reveals how life changes us all and how these unavoidable changes can be full of both turmoil and wonder.”

Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, February 23, 2009:
"The detail-rich story offers the type of intensity that sneaks up on readers."

Meet the Author

Brent Runyon is a writer and regular contributor to public radio programs, including This American Life, where portions of his award-winning memoir, The Burn Journals, first aired. Booklist praised The Burn Journals as “the defining book of a new genre, one that gazes unflinchingly at boys on the emotional edge.” In his novels Maybe and Surface Tension, he retains that raw honesty. Mr. Runyon lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

From the Hardcover edition.

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