It was a well-established thing in Fernweh history: that all Fernweh women found their particular gifts by their eighteenth birthday. I had a great-great-aunt who had discovered her powers of teleportation (she could zap herself to anywhere on the island, but she couldn’t zap her clothes, so it ended up being a very risqué gift) at the age of four, and she proceeded to use them gleefully, scaring her siblings and parents half to death by popping up in the strangest places. I had yet another great-great-aunt who hadn’t discovered her powers of telepathy until she was seventeen and a half.
There seemed to be no rhyme or reason.
Mary and I would be turning eighteen at the end of the summer, and here I was: still resolutely unmagical while Mary had been floating since birth.
—Summer of Salt, by Katrina Leno
That’s a longer excerpt than usual, but it makes me smile every time I read it AND it does a great job of setting the scene, so I’m keeping it!
Review spoiler: Summer of Salt, appropriately, turned out to be an excellent summer read for yours truly. It’s comfortable but not stale; it’s quiet without pulling punches; Georgina’s voice reads light on the surface, but her emotional undercurrents and understanding of relationships and cultural power dynamics have nuance and depth.
It’s set on an isolated and largely-idyllic island called By-The-Sea, a place populated by hairdressers who hate cutting hair and postmen who don’t charge for stamps and a boy named Jimmy Frankfurter* who barfs cotton candy off the top of the Ferris wheel. It’s also home to the magical Fernweh family—everyone knows the Fernweh women have magic, but no one talks about it. It’s also home, in the summer, to a 300-year-old bird called Annabella’s Woodpecker—she’s actually a flicker, but it’s hard to fight with 300-year-old names regardless of how wrong they are—and the tourists who come to study and document her behavior.
Summer of Salt is the story of Fernweh twins Georgina and Mary, and the life-changing events of the summer they turn eighteen. It’s about family and friendship and community; about girlhood and sisterhood and womanhood and motherhood; about assumptions and suspicion and about how culturally, young women have a much smaller range of “appropriate” behavior than young men.
It’s about home and comfort, safety and familiarity, but it’s also about yearning to meet new people, go further afield, and experience the world. AND it’s about how home and comfort, safety and familiarity aren’t always as safe and familiar as we think—about how quickly a small, caring, familiar community will turn on one of their own when fear and grief and uncertainty are introduced.
It’s about how heavy a burden that suspicion is on the innocents who are forced to bear it.
It’s about the fragility of trust, and the utter wrongness of destroying something so precious.
It’s also about the building of trust—about two girls getting to know each other, recognizing their attraction to one another, and slowly, slowly, acting on that attraction. Georgie’s romance in Summer of Salt is particularly lovely because it is so drawn out—and it provides a warm, safe counterpoint to Mary’s much more painful arc.
The worldbuilding contains a satisfying mix of quirk without getting overly twee; there are fantasy elements but the whole thing still feels grounded—the strength of Leno’s character work makes the entire story, magic included, feel like it’s within the realm of possibility. It reminded me of Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap in that way, and I can’t imagine that it’s a coincidence that there’s a character named ‘Polly Horvath.’
Even though my To Be Read pile is once again ENTIRELY out of control, I’ll be taking a look at Leno’s backlist, STAT!
*Jimmy Frankfurter has nothing to do with the actual plot of the book—he’s just set-dressing, really—but I had to mention him because JIMMY FRANKFURTER.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.