Libby, the author of several religious titles (The Forgiveness Book, 2010, etc.), makes his fiction debut with a charming, evocative coming-of-age novel.
In 1947, 16-year-old Cooper Dawkins is a normal American kid with a big problem—his parents are divorcing. Through a teacher at his Long Island high school, Cooper gets a job at a summer hotel in Vermont and considers it a perfect chance to escape. Planning to pass himself off as older and full of the ambition to “become a man, although he wasn’t quite sure what that meant,” Cooper arrives in Vermont and quickly discovers he sticks out like a sore thumb among the college students staffing the hotel (his proudly purchased cigarettes even turn out to be the wrong brand). He flirts with the beautiful Ronnie and the treacherous Sheila and befriends the brassy but true-hearted Rosie, who is proudly Jewish. The casual anti-Semitism Rosie endures, along with the fashions, music and mores, effectively evoke the era, warts and all. Cooper is assigned to the kitchens, presided over by the temperamental German chef Rudy and his long-suffering wife, Gretchen. Between his secret drinking, temper tantrums and vile screeds against Rosie, Rudy makes a memorable villain, though he also shows Cooper great kindness in the kitchen. As the summer wears on, Cooper has to contend with thwarted romance, sexual humiliation, an over-the-top confrontation with Rudy and an urgent summons home from his mother before the season is over. These bitter touches are a wonderful contrast to the frequent doses of nostalgia and give the work a pleasing verisimilitude. The commentary of the hotel’s gossipy laundry ladies is a distracting narrative device, and some of the characterizations of the staff go no deeper than their college affiliations, but these are small missteps. Luckily for readers, Cooper’s remembered summer ends on a high note, drawing to a memorable, satisfying conclusion. Given the potential for sentimentality in this material, restraint turns out to be the most admirable thing about Libby's prose; his matter-of-fact sentences evoke details without bogging down in wistfulness.
A truthful, touching coming-of-age novel that will have particular appeal for 1940s buffs and connoisseurs of New England summer-hotel culture.