The Gypsy Moth Summer: A Novel

The Gypsy Moth Summer: A Novel

by Julia Fierro
The Gypsy Moth Summer: A Novel

The Gypsy Moth Summer: A Novel

by Julia Fierro


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"Fierro doesn't just observe, she knows. Like all great novelists, she gives us the world." - Amy Bloom, bestselling author of Away and Lucky Us

It is the summer of 1992 and a gypsy moth invasion blankets Avalon Island. Ravenous caterpillars disrupt early summer serenity on Avalon, an islet off the coast of Long Island—dropping onto novels left open on picnic blankets, crawling across the T-shirts of children playing games of tag and capture the flag in the island's leafy woods. The caterpillars become a relentless topic of island conversation and the inescapable soundtrack of the season.

It is also the summer Leslie Day Marshall—only daughter of Avalon’s most prominent family—returns with her husband, a botanist, and their children to live in “The Castle,” the island's grandest estate. Leslie’s husband Jules is African-American, and their children bi-racial, and islanders from both sides of the tracks form fast and dangerous opinions about the new arrivals.

Maddie Pencott LaRosa straddles those tracks: a teen queen with roots in the tony precincts of East Avalon and the crowded working class corner of West Avalon, home to Grudder Aviation factory, the island's bread-and-butter and birthplace of generations of bombers and war machines. Maddie falls in love with Brooks, Leslie’s and Jules’ son, and that love feels as urgent to Maddie as the questions about the new and deadly cancers showing up across the island. Could Grudder Aviation, the pride of the island—and its patriarch, the Colonel—be to blame?

As the gypsy moths burst from cocoons in flocks that seem to eclipse the sun, Maddie’s and Brooks’ passion for each other grows and she begins planning a life for them off Avalon Island.

Vivid with young lovers, gangs of anxious outsiders; a plotting aged matriarch and her husband, a demented military patriarch; and a troubled young boy, each seeking his or her own refuge, escape and revenge, The Gypsy Moth Summer is about love, gaps in understanding, and the struggle to connect: within families; among friends; between neighbors and entire generations.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250087515
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 06/06/2017
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

JULIA FIERRO is the author of the novels The Gypsy Moth Summer and Cutting Teeth. Her work has been published in The Millions, Poets & Writers, Buzzfeed, Glamour, and other publications, and she has been profiled in The Observer and The Economist. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Julia founded The Sackett Street Writers' Workshop in 2002, a creative home to more than 3,500 writers in NYC, Los Angeles and Online. SSWW was named “Best Writing Classes” by The Village Voice, Time Out NY, and “Best MFA-Alternative” by Poets & Writers. Julia lives in Brooklyn and Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

The Gypsy Moth Summer

By Julia Fierro

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2017 Julia Fierro
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-08751-5



For Maddie Pencott LaRosa, newly sweet sixteen, the East Avalon fair, first of the season, was a coming-out party.

She strode down the fairway in Bitsy Smith's pack, doubling her steps to keep up with the other girls. Bitsy, Vanessa, Gabrielle, and the newest recruits: Maddie and her best friend, Penny. Five pairs of angular hips bumping and bronzed shoulders rubbing, their long sun-lightened hair flowing behind in one stream of fiery light.

Maddie knew it was a coming-out for everyone on the eastern tip of Avalon Island, a chance to celebrate the end of a long, hard winter. The young mothers had painted their fingernails and tried out a new lip color; convinced their husbands to wear madras shorts, a Christmas gift ordered from a catalogue. Children raced down the fairway, candy apple in one hand, and in the other, a goldfish sloshing in a water-filled baggie. But Maddie felt all eyes pinned on her and the girls trailing Bitsy — the strands of her ringleader's hair like golden threads of honey tying worker bees to their queen.

Everyone at East High knew Bitsy was the queen. Of the sassy head tilt, condescending eye roll, the who-the-fuck-do-you-think-you-are stance, one hip jutting as Bitsy's sea-gray eyes slow-mo scanned Maddie up and down so it was crystal clear she judged every flawed bit. The new breasts Maddie had tried to hide under a sweatshirt all spring. The acne peppering her forehead, poorly concealed by uneven bangs she'd trimmed herself. Too impatient and broke — too stupid, she thought — to make an appointment at the salon in town.

Like the other girls, she'd worn white (a denim skirt and eyelet top), just as Bitsy had instructed over the phone the night before. Maddie caught her reflection in the window of the food truck selling fried chicken wings. She liked the way her tanned skin vibrated in contrast, and as the flashing bulbs of the Tilt-A-Whirl painted her uniform red-orange-blue-red-orange-blue it was like looking through a gem-filled kaleidoscope. Proof the night was as magical as she'd hoped it would be — dreams that had carried her through the winter of '91 with its blizzards and the nor'easter turned perfect storm that had flooded the causeway, the island's only exit. As she'd trudged through the snow toward the school bus stop, Tic Tac boxes filled with hot water tucked in the pockets of her peacoat, she'd imagined the fairway stretched like a green carpet across the town square. The carnival lights burning against an inky sky. She had tasted cotton candy melting on her tongue and heard the old-timey carousel tunes. The fair had been a present waiting to be unwrapped, held under her bulky sweaters all winter long, keeping her warm.

Now the air was sweet with the pastel cotton-candy clouds of her dreams. Caramel apples sweated in the new heat. Scents mingled — Love's Baby Soft and Petite Naté for the girls and, for the ladies, perfumes with names that made virginal Maddie blush. Eternity. Obsession. Trésor.

The girls passed the dunking booth, where a toothy, smiling Tina Meyer sat. Tina was captain of the cheerleading team and president of SADD (Students Against Drunk Driving), and, Maddie had heard from bigmouth Vanessa, infamous for giving Troy Mayhew a blowjob in the back of the football bus on the drive home from an away game. A crowd of teenage boys (a few Maddie recognized) in blue-and-white varsity jackets — felted wildcats lunging across the white leather, teeth bared, claws sprung — circled the tank, their energy fanning out like the ripples in the pond behind St. John's Church.

"Soak the slut!" a boy yelled.

The buzzer brayed and Tina Meyer dropped into the water. A few cold drops hit Maddie's cheek and she wiped them away, careful not to smear her makeup. She watched as the dripping girl pulled herself from the black water streaked with colored light and back onto her perch — every curve outlined under her soaked Wildcats T-shirt. She was shivering, her lips gone purplish. Maddie barely knew Tina but wished someone would rescue her.

"For fucksake," Bitsy said so everyone could hear, including Tina, "cover the girl so we don't have to look at her mutant nipples!"

"Tsss, burn," Vanessa hissed, nodding in approval. "The girl is cuttin' glass!"

Gabrielle threw an I-told-you-so smirk over her shoulder, her long blond waves slicing through the air. "That twat better pray she don't get gang raped in the parking lot."

The girls giggled and Maddie felt like she was wading through a shower of shattered glass. She knew they loved nothing more than a good laugh, especially if it was the punch line to humiliating someone. Self-righteousness buoyed them so they walked on air, and Maddie felt their stride accelerate, as powerful as the engines of the Grudder Wildcats that flew in formation over the island every Fourth of July.

She tried to imagine what people saw. Girls? Women? Young ladies? Wasn't that what her grandmother's friends at the club called her? What a fine young lady. But there'd been rumors flying around the corridors of East High that spring — Bitsy Smith and her clique were wild girls. Fun girls. Up for a good time.

Maddie watched Bitsy prance ahead, her flawlessly straight hair swinging in time with her swiveling hips. Swish, swish, swish. Like the mane of Smith's Farragut, the champion horse Bitsy rode in shows, named for the first admiral in the navy, whose life story Maddie and all the island kids had memorized in grade school. Gabrielle, second in command, was the curviest, and Maddie was sure she saw Gabrielle's lacy underwear through her snug white shorts. Vanessa, Bitsy's unofficial bodyguard, was sporting newly filled-out breasts aided by a push-up bra she'd bragged about lifting from Victoria's Secret. And finally, there was Penny, Maddie's best friend, who, Maddie thought, desperately needed a bra to shape the two mounds hanging loose under her Izod button-down.

Their bodies were no longer childish. Still, Maddie needed to think of them as girls. She wasn't ready for what came next, whatever it was, but there was a fever in the air, hovering above the rattle of the popcorn machine and the shudder of the Zipper careening over old rails. She heard the sizzle of a sparkler; then a balloon popped with a crack and the crowd whooped and a child gasped; and, suddenly, Maddie believed in hearts leaping and swelling, breaking and exploding. Scenarios she'd come to long for after watching videos on MTV and listening to love ballads DJ Spinbad played on Z100.3. When Whitney Houston hit those yearning-filled high notes in "I Will Always Love You" (every other hour it seemed), Maddie turned up the radio, rolled her car windows down, lit a Kent King 100 she'd stolen from her grandmother's pantry, put the pedal to the metal, and sang along, free from the fear that she might embarrass herself.

As the pulsing bass of the fair's most popular ride, the Gravitron, soaked into the soles of her sandals, slithered up her calves, her thighs, and reached inside her, she believed something was on its way. How could she not? She was young and beautiful — or, at least, pretty enough, she thought — at a time in life when being young and beautiful seemed like the answer to everything.

The girls passed game after game — ringtoss and Whac-A-Mole and darts and, Maddie's favorite, the one where you shot water from a plastic pistol into a balloon that stretched and stretched, then burst with a splash. But there was no stopping without Bitsy's permission, and who wanted any of those junky prizes anyway — the sad-eyed stuffed panda bears as big as golden retrievers Maddie had longed for as a child, or the lethargic goldfish scooped from a tank. The fish never lasted more than a day.

She'd prepared for the fair. Ironed her jean skirt, double-shaved her legs, used Nair to remove the downy fur on her upper lip. She cleaned out the bottom drawer in the fridge, took the lemons her dad stuffed in his roast chicken, and, man, would he be pissed when he found out. She'd squeezed one after another over her long brown hair and lay out to tan on a faded bath towel spread over the hard asphalt of the driveway, praying the juice turned her hair buttery with highlights. Who cared that it wasn't technically summer? Or that her skin prickled in the wind gusting in from the Sound? Bitsy, miraculously, had been tan for weeks, her hair striped blond, so she glowed like the sunset that burned along shore each night.

Maddie had been tempted to buy a bottle of Sun In at Genovese Drug Store but feared the peroxide spray could turn her hair a garish copper. Last week, Bitsy had ripped Penny a new one when she showed up on the last day of school a freakish bronze from one of those tan-in-a-bottle creams. The skin between her fingers as brown as mud. Vanessa had teased Penny all week, using the few words of Spanish she knew. Hola, Miss Penelope! Her fake accent and rolling r's making Maddie glance around to see if anyone had heard.

"Patience is a virtue," Bitsy had said to Penny in a motherly tone, then added, "Think before you fucking do, dumdum, 'kay?"

Gliding through life as a member of Bitsy's pack was like riding a roller coaster for the first time — every dip and swerve thrilling but also gut-flipping, so Maddie didn't know if the girls might praise her one minute (Oh my God, Maddie, how'd you get your hair to shine like that?) and knock her down the next (Too bad your dad, like, gave you his Eye-talian skin — have you tried Clearasil?).

At least, Maddie thought, she didn't worship Bitsy blindly like Penny did. As they strode past the Captain's Ship, the screams of its passengers rising as the ride arced into the night sky, she spotted Penny biting into a fried zeppole ball — her mouth a smear of frosted lip gloss and powdered sugar; the thin white-blond hair Maddie had straightened before the fair already crimping.

"Quit messing with your hair, Pen," Maddie whispered as they paraded past food carts selling slick pizza slices and heroes spilling ribbons of beef.

"What?" Penny lifted her greasy fingers to her hair.

"Forget it."

Penny stuck her tongue out at Maddie before taking another bite of the sugary dough.

That night, Penny's parents, Major and Mrs. Whittemore, had been out of the house, knocking back martinis and manhattans at the Oyster Cove Country Club cocktail hour — their Saturday-night ritual. So Maddie and Penny had blasted "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the major's stereo, screaming the chorus until the nonsensical lyrics had felt like a prayer. A command sent out to the world to listen the fuck up. Here we are now, entertain us/ A mulatto/ An albino/ A mosquito/ My libido/ Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

They had chased shots of Absolut stolen from Penny's older sisters' stash with pink cans of Mrs. Whittemore's Tab, and Penny, who pretended not to give one shit about her looks, let Maddie rub blush into her ruddy cheeks and dab shadow on her lids, so she looked more like a girl who belonged in Bitsy Smith's crew and less like the ugly duckling of the five Whittemore girls — all blond, blue-eyed, and Ivy League–bound beauties, a living ad for Avalon Island.

As she had combed through Penny's thinning hair, her Twin Turbo blow-dryer filling the room with the scent of singed scalp, strands came loose until the oriental carpet was coated in fine gold threads. She knew it was only a matter of time before Penny would have to wear a wig.

Penny had been far beyond the margins of Bitsy's clique when a seizure in sixth-period chemistry led doctors to the tumor in her brain. A status that had scored Penny overnight popularity, and an invitation to join Bitsy's crew — penned in Bitsy's own bubbly script on her personalized stationery. Good for one official membership in the FRESHEST DOPEST gang of bitches at East High! When Maddie had opened her own locker, the same rainbow-print envelope had fallen to the floor. She'd been sure it was a prank. Like in that TV after-school special where the fat girl is invited into the sorority only to be humiliated half-naked in front of their brother fraternity. She knew she had Penny and her cancer to thank for her place in Bitsy's clique, and reminded herself of this when Penny's klutzy jokes fell flat and Maddie felt the urge to shush her, or, worse, tell her to shut it for once.

Penny insisted her doctors were optimistic she'd be plowing across the lacrosse field in no time, carrying the East High Wildcats to another county championship. And how serious could it be, Maddie thought, when there were other sick kids, especially on the west side, where her father's side of the family — the LaRosas — lived, near the factory and commercial streets crowded with gas stations and car washes and shops like her uncle Carmine's garage, Panther Autobody?

The fairway was packed. No surprise, she thought, the east islanders turning out big only days after graffiti — black, dripping, three-foot-tall letters — scarred the steps of City Hall, and, more shocking, the tall stone obelisk (Bitsy had a bunch of nicknames for it —"The Shaft," "Dick Tower," "Needle Dick") in the center of Town Square, a memorial to pilots killed in battle flying Grudder planes.



Maddie had seen the words herself, only a few hours before the factory sent men to blast the memorial with a power washer, drape Needle Dick with wreaths of red, white, and blue carnations, and plant like a hundred flags around the monument. A little much, she thought. Like they were asking to get tagged a second time. She guessed she wasn't alone in hoping the graffiti bandit (that's what the kids were calling him) would strike again. On Avalon, rules were rarely broken, and the thrill of such a blatant up yours to Grudder felt like a jump-start to the summer. Like anything was possible.

Even the old men who ran Grudder, some of them navy men like her grandfather, made an appearance that night. Sure enough, she saw they were trying extra hard — navy blues knife-edge creased, clusters of medals polished so high they flashed under the carnival lights. An FU back at the graffiti bandit shitting on Old Ironsides in her own backyard.

Bitsy led them past a group of moms Maddie recognized from the PTA, their blond helmets varnished with Aqua Net. Maddie tasted the metallic tang. A wall of humidity had rolled in from the Sound that morning and the ladies of East Avalon, Maddie included, had blown out their hair, and, in some cases, like mouthy Vanessa, who had natural corkscrew curls, used a hot iron.

Bitsy had lectured new recruits Maddie and Penny on the kind of beauty that made East girls. Curls are too ethnic. Leave the kinks to the Hispanic girls in Avalon Point near the ferry landing and the Jews in Rosedale on the mainland where Maddie's family ordered Chinese takeout.

Do not go ape shit with the makeup, Bitsy had preached. God forbid they look like the big-haired, gum-snapping West Avalon girls, who lined their lips with brown pencil, caked on the foundation, and hung out at the Walt Whitman shopping center on the mainland because they had nothing better to do. Mall maggots, Bitsy called them. Now an official East girl, Maddie learned she had a duty to mock the West High kids. Even if her cousins, the twins Vinny and Enzo, went to West High. Even if her uncle Carmine owned the busiest auto body shop on the west side.

She knew some might say she'd always been an East girl, having lived on the east side her whole life, and behind the gates of one of its grandest estates, but she felt her otherness, knew she wasn't east or west but caught between. Every month, she watched her mother sit at the kitchen table and write out a check for a single dollar in her shaky cursive — to Colonel and Mrs. Robert Pencott — and stuff it in an envelope addressed to her grandparents' condo in Florida. A reminder that, although, like her mother, Maddie had never known another home, they were temporary tenants in the cramped groundskeeper's cottage squatting like a forest mushroom in the shadow of her grandparents' nine-bedroom limestone Tudor, White Eagle.

She watched Penny take T. rex–size steps in her high-heeled sandals, reassurance that at least she wasn't most out of place in Bitsy's crew. While Penny's horsey teeth and woman-wide hips threw their herd symmetry off-kilter — she didn't even pop her zits! — it guaranteed Maddie was the good recruit, Bitsy's star pupil. But as they passed the panicked squeals of the pig race, she felt the jagged half-heart charm under her shirt and felt a prick of guilt. For her sixteenth birthday, Penny had given her one of those Best Friends Forever necklaces from Piercing Pagoda at the mall, and together they'd cracked the charm in two.


Excerpted from The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro. Copyright © 2017 Julia Fierro. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
PART 1 The Hatching — June 5, 1992,
1. Maddie,
2. Jules,
PART 2 The Feeding — Early June 1992,
3. Dom,
4. Veronica,
5. Jules,
6. Leslie,
7. Maddie,
8. Jules,
9. Maddie,
10. Jules,
11. Maddie,
12. Jules,
13. Dom,
14. Veronica,
15. Dom,
16. Maddie,
17. Veronica,
18. Jules,
19. Leslie,
PART 3 The Molting — Late June 1992,
20. The Colonel,
21. Jules,
22. Dom,
23. Maddie,
24. Jules,
25. Veronica,
26. Leslie,
27. Dom,
28. Maddie,
29. Veronica,
30. Jules,
PART 4 An Eclipse of Moths — July–August 1992,
31. Veronica,
32. Jules,
33. Maddie,
34. Veronica,
35. Maddie,
36. Veronica,
37. Leslie,
38. Dom,
39. Maddie,
40. Jules,
41. Maddie,
42. Veronica,
43. Dom,
44. Maddie,
45. Jules,
PART 5 The Spawning — Late August–Early September 1992,
46. Jules,
47. Dom,
48. Maddie,
49. Veronica,
50. Dom,
51. Leslie,
Also by Julia Fierro,
Advance Praise for The Gypsy Moth Summer,
About the Author,

Reading Group Guide

Book Club Discussion Questions for The Gypsy Moth Summer:
Reread the epigraph after you've finished the novel. Is The Gypsy Moth Summer a "revenge story?" How does the prevalence of "revenge stories" in books, films and television shows affect our perspectives, and why do we seek out—and sometimes find redemption in—these stories?

Familial love and the choices we make to protect our family is a central theme in The Gypsy Moth Summer. Would you pull the trigger if it meant saving your family?

There are a variety of love stories in the novel—the star-crossed first love of Maddie and Brooks, the time-weathered love of Veronica and the Colonel, the unstable and passionate love of Leslie and Jules, Dom's devotion to his older sister, among them. Which story resonated with you and why?

Set on an island home to a major military aircraft factory, loyalty to the island, and to country, is a motivating factor in the characters' decisions. Are the choices Veronica, the Colonel, and even young Dom make worth the necessary sacrifices?

The Gypsy Moth Summer takes place twenty-five years in the past, yet there are many parallels between the political climate of 1992 and today. How are the novel's depictions of racism, classicism, sexism, environmental pollution, and the military-industrial complex in 1992 relevant to the current political situation in the United States?

Which character changed the most over the course of the summer? Did that character's evolution affect the way you sympathized with his or her plight?

There is a great divide between the generations of Avalonians in the novel. Leslie and Jules are members of the Baby Boom generation, some of whom, like Leslie, came of age as "flower children" protesting the Vietnam War. Leslie's parents, as well as the senior islanders like Veronica and the Colonel, are members of The Greatest Generation, who grew up during the Great Depression and fought in WWII. Finally, teenagers Maddie and Dom belong to Generation X, coming of age in a time of prosperity and peace with the end of the Cold War. How do the differences among these generations affect the characters' ability to communicate, negotiate, and live peacefully on the island together?

Where were you in the summer of 1992? Which of the three generations do you identify with most?

Today's teenagers have instant access to information via the Internet but The Gypsy Moth Summer is set in the pre-Internet, pre-cell phone era. How do the teens like Maddie, Brooks and Dom search for solutions to their questions on everything from sex, class, race, and even the politics shaking the foundation of the island?

Jules is the first African-American resident in East Avalon and the presence of his and Leslie's biracial family reveals the deeply rooted racism hiding under the seemingly idyllic surface of Avalon Island. Although the novel takes place over two decades ago, recent studies have shown American cities and suburbs are only slightly less segregated today. Research the racial composition of your own city online. Were the results surprising or predictable, and how does the presence of (or lack of) racial diversity affect your community?

Avalon is an "island with one exit"—a single lane causeway leading to the mainland. The characters have different reactions to the geographic isolation of the island. When Jules first visits he experiences it as an idyllic escape from urban chaos and when summer ends, yet Maggie and Brooks, a biracial couple, fear their young love has no future there. Is Avalon Island more paradise or prison?

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