Fielding Bliss has never forgotten the summer of 1984: the year a heat wave scorched Breathed, Ohio. The year he became friends with the devil.
Sal seems to appear out of nowhere – a bruised and tattered thirteen-year-old boy claiming to be the devil himself answering an invitation. Fielding Bliss, the son of a local prosecutor, brings him home where he’s welcomed into the Bliss family, assuming he’s a runaway from a nearby farm town.
When word spreads that the devil has come to Breathed, not everyone is happy to welcome this self-proclaimed fallen angel. Murmurs follow him and tensions rise, along with the temperatures as an unbearable heat wave rolls into town right along with him. As strange accidents start to occur, riled by the feverish heat, some in the town start to believe that Sal is exactly who he claims to be. While the Bliss family wrestles with their own personal demons, a fanatic drives the town to the brink of a catastrophe that will change this sleepy Ohio backwater forever.
Completion: From the very start, I was intrigued by the summary which hints at an element of magical realism in this literary novel, and as I dove deeper I became invested in the characters and entranced by the gorgeous writing.
Writing/Style: The narrative is couched in a poetic, philosophic style, which while occasionally flirts with melodrama and overwrought language in a few places (often due to the nature of withholding that comes from the narrative of the main character as an old man) manages to pull back just in time. As a whole, the style flows and sings.
Characters: Sal, the thirteen-year-old boy that shows up in Breathed, Ohio claiming to be the devil, is a fascinating character. Tackling the iconic image of the devil is no small feat, and Tiffany McDaniel succeeds in creating a thoughtful, creative version of the classic figure. Straddling the line between the devil and a thirteen-year-old boy makes Sal a tricky character to pull off. This leads to an odd balance at times between a peculiarly precocious and quirky child and a devil with strange priorities. (I should also note that Sal is black which could be misconstrued as a biased move; however, I feel like this choice is used within the narrative to reveal and debunk the fears of white America in 1984 and modern day as well.)
I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of characters in this novel, especially considering the setting of a small town in the Midwest in 1984. However, this diversity comes as a double-edged sword: while the representation of diverse characters is appreciated, some of these representations slightly touch on a couple of not-so-fun tropes. (While I would argue that these characters skirt away from becoming the tropes fully, I do feel obligated to note this.)
Plot/Pacing: The story goes back and forth between young Fielding Bliss in 1984 and old Fielding in the future. At times, the transitions between the two were a little weak, leading to some confusion but overall provided an interesting character study on how the main character changed due to the events of the summer of 1984.
World-building/Atmosphere: Breathed, Ohio comes to life in this novel with its small-town feel and quirky cast of characters. Much like any small American town, Breathed has its charms and its flaws which feel realistic and relatable.
Sub-genres (Romance, Humor, Mystery, etc.): While not strictly classified as a mystery, the structure of the novel relies on putting together the puzzle pieces of what happened in the summer of 1984 to create the bitter and depressed Fielding of the future as well as deciding whether or not Sal actually is the devil. Furthermore, while the novel is by no means a light read, it does possess a quirky humor often presented by the town’s more eccentric characters.
FINAL VERDICT: McDaniel presents an ambitious debut, tackling heavy and important issues of racism, homophobia, HIV/AIDS, agoraphobia, and more. Despite a few inevitable debut hiccups, The Summer that Melted Everything is a compelling read that is sure to spark thought and discussion. If the concept of the devil coming to town sounds appealing to you, make sure to check this one out!
If you are interested in this novel, it comes out July 26th, 2016!
*I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) in exchange for an honest review.