Rating: 5 stars out of 5
Topher Carlisle likes to think of himself as fabulous. Topher knows he looks fabulous, now only if he felt that way on the inside. He is turning twenty one and stands on the precipice of adulthood with life changing decisions rising up around him. Gay, gorgeous and of mixed race, Topher’s upbringing has been anything but normal. Or happy. Or safe. His mother is a drug dependent alcoholic whose mental health issues threatened his health and his sanity growing up. His other relatives are little better, giving him support on their terms, which were both emotionally and physically abusive. And while most people only see a flamboyantly gay, intelligent and perhaps superficial young man, the inner Topher is the one who continues to battle with his depression and thoughts of worthlessness.
Supporting himself through college on a swimming scholarship, Topher’s education might be cut short if he can’t get in condition to compete for the team in the fall and earn the money he needs for board. Luckily for Topher, his BFF, Mo is bringing him with her to the family beach house on Lake Michigan. A summer of swimming and, hopefully, part time work, should just do the trick if Topher can stick with the program, but that is something he rarely does. And something totally unexpected and disasterous happens….his bestfriend’s father is handsome, closeted…and it turns out, available for an affair. An affair that ruins everyones lives before the summer is over.
Now homeless, friendless and desperate Topher needs help in the worst way. And it comes in the shape of a artist named Jace who asks to paint his portrait and sees beyond the facade Topher has erected to protect himself from further pain. And he just might be the answer to this young gay man’s prayers…if only Topher will give him a chance and let him in.
What? Don’t recognize the book by the synopsis above? Not even close to the blurb you read that starts out “Hi, I’m Topher Carlisle: twenty-one, pretty, and fabulous”? Not surprising because that light, somewhat comedic summary has little in common with the dark, heartrending story that is Saugatuck Summer. Just like you, I was expecting a sort of coming of age story featuring one of those fabulous characters who burbles on in an almost stream of consciouness, missing an editor gate sort of inner monologue. You know light, kind of frothy, with hints of angst here and there. That is not, as I said, Saugatuck Summer. What I got was darker, deeper, and totally involving featuring a mess of a main character who is not instantly likable. All of which is much, much better than anything I had originally anticipated.
Instead of light romance, Gormley gives us Christopher “Topher” Carlisle, a chronic depressive who is half black, gay, and on the cusp of turning twenty one. A traumatic event sent him into a downward spiral last year in college, turning him into a black hole of depression and making him unable to attend classes or stay in shape to swim. We meet Topher as the summer starts. His bestfriend, Mo, has invited Topher to stay with her and her family at the summer vacation home on Lake Michigan free of charge. There Topher can swim himself back into shape and get a part-time job to help pay college expenses in the fall. Sounds great, right? And it would be for anyone but Topher who is also self destructive and possesses of poor self image. He is, as they say, his own worst enemy and proves it over and over again to himself to be certain.
Gormley establishes that the reasons why Topher acts the way he does are grounded in his abusive past which continues to haunt him as he cannot bring himself to cut all ties to his mother and his family. The author doesn’t dump all the horror that is Topher’s family on the reader at once which is probably a good thing because the ghastly mess that is Topher’s family and upbringing is made more effective when it is revealed in segments of painful revelations as Topher relives scenes from his childhood and other memories that refuse to stay buried. Topher himself is aware of his self destructive tendencies. He is the product of years of therapy and doctor ordered medications that help with the depression. But as the cause of most of his pain is only a phone call away, a complete breakdown is a possibility in any given stressful situation. Over and over again, Gormley’s Topher will bring us to tears even as we want to give him a shake in frustration over his actions. We get it and him. It will take a while to accept Topher as he is such a deeply flawed young man but when you do (and you will if you give him a chance), then his journey out of the darkness and into a reality where he just might find happiness is one you will wholly invest yourself in. You will love this young man and every step he takes, forward and back, are ones that you will take together.
Ah, yes, the cheating. I know that for some of you, just the mention of cheating will have you crossing this off your TBR list. And that the man who cheats is not only married but Topher’s best friend’s father might send the rest of you running for the proverbial door. To all of you, please put that issue aside and read this story. Brandon, the father, has his own demons to fight and he also is a flawed, impulsive human being. Brandon knows that this affair will end badly but like Topher, he can’t help himself. Again, Gormley provides a solid and realistic rationale for both men’s actions. You don’t have to like what they are doing, just understand that each man, or almost man in Topher’s case, has so many dark skeletons in their closet that it makes this jump into bed almost a given. Everyone here is so authentically human, painfully so that no matter how awful their actions seems, you still end up empathizing with everyone who gets pulled into this mess. And that includes the two main participants.
Gormley does an outstanding job with all her characters here. Mo, the best friend betrayed by both her father and Topher, is a portrait of loyalty and heartbreak. A married couple, Robin (an art gallery owner) and Geoff, his partner and tattoo artist, who turn out to be the grounded gay couple who helps save Topher by providing a framework of knowledge and friendship that Topher has never had before. And finally Jace, the artist who sees deeply into the troubled Topher and still wants to pursue a relationship. Each and every one is a stunner of a character. And their importance to this story and Topher is beautifully rendered in scenes that will make you laugh and cry and want to be a part of that village that starts to raise Topher up out of the hole made by his upbringing and family.
Is this an easy book to read? No, not really. But it is a wonderful one. It will pull you in, involve you emotionally and mentally. It will tear you up as you watch Topher breaking on the shoals of his illness and family history. And finally it will move you to tears and happiness as Topher finds his way to love and a future. Thankfully, Amelia C. Gormley realizes that there will never be an easy resolution to someone with Topher’s illnesses and past, only better ways to handle them with the right therapy and a balanced doctor proscribed plan of medication. So the ending is marvelously conceived and wonderfully realistic. I loved it as I did Topher and everyone else found within the covers of Saugatuck Summer.
Saugatuck Summer is a book not to be missed. It will be one to be remembered. And Saugatuck Summer will be on my Best of 2014 list at the end of the year.
Cover artist is LC Chase. That cover is beautifully deceptive. You only think it shows a lovely peaceful beach scene but look at the gathering storm clouds and the portent is clear. Just an amazing cover, one of the best of the year.
Of Special Note: Be sure to check out the Saugatuck Summer soundtrack by singer/songwriter Casey Stratton . This soundtrack is the soundtrack for Topher’s life. Stratton’s music and lyrics are found throughout the story, linking events, memories and happenings together in a seamless strand of melody. I found a new musician to love with this story. Visit his website. I think you will find the same.
ebook, 363 pages
Published May 19th 2014 by Riptide Publishing (first published May 17th 2014)
original titleSaugatuck Summer