1971: The Summer of the Swans (In which swans play very little part)


Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

Summer of the Swans primarily focuses on the relationship between awkward teenager Sarah and her mentally handicapped brother Charlie. Sarah is in the self-criticism phase of growing up; she spends much of the book moaning to her older sister about what she hates about herself, from the orange shoes she dyed puce to her skinny legs. However, Sarah has a genuine affection for her brother Charlie. She sees it as her duty to watch out for him. One evening, Charlie leaves the house alone, looking for the swans Sarah took him to see earlier in the evening. He becomes very lost, panicking his family. Sarah, with the help of her former-enemy, brings Charlie home, in the process gaining a greater sense of self-worth.

I’m pretty neutral on this book. Didn’t hate it but it wasn’t riveting either. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a younger sister with Down’s Syndrome, so the relationship between Sarah and Charlie felt very familiar to me. Sarah sprayed someone with a hose because they were taunting her by calling her brother retarded. I almost punched someone for similar reasons when I was in elementary school. The need to protect a sibling, even if they occasionally frustrate you, is strong.

The Good:

The Sarah/Charlie relationship is extremely well drawn and realistic, as I’ve discussed above. I also liked the stylistic choice to include chapters written from Charlie’s perspective. Besides explaining what happens while Charlie is alone, the author does a good job of getting inside Charlie’s head. Rather than portraying him as simple or a less competent child, the author reveals why Charlie makes the choices he does; Charlie often reacts to stimuli differently than “average” people. The sympathy with which the author portrays Charlie makes Charlie the more interesting, developed character in Summer of the Swans.

The Bad:

Sarah. Especially in scenes where it’s just her and Wanda, the older sister, talking. She’s annoying, judgmental, and hasty in her actions. While the story is about her development, she’s still a grating character. The plot is frustrating in that external validation matters greatly to Sarah, who is afraid of being judged. Although finding Charlie is the high point of the book, Sarah getting asked to a part by – gasp – a boy is a close second. Of course, it was pretty hilarious when she forgot color theory while trying to dye her sneakers. Orange and blue rarely mix into an attractive hue…

I’d recommend this for siblings of people with disabilities. That part of the book is well done, and it’s an issue not talked about as frequently/portrayed in significant depth in many other books.


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