June 30, 2021

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The Fleeting Nature of Summer in Elizabeth Holleville’s Summer Spirit from Nobrow



Elizabeth Holleville's Summer Spirit is a charming book. Oftentimes, I feel others may use the adjective "charming" with some degree of derision, a kind of back-handed way to dismiss a book as merely "quaint." But for me, the idea of a book being charming is entirely complimentary. I especially find the notion to be true of young adult graphic novels. It's a special kind of feeling for a particular type of book. Interstellar battles may be pretty darn compelling, but it isn't necessarily charming in the way little glimpses into real-life can be. In fact, I'd go so far as to contend that the primary qualification for a good YA graphic novel is that it is charming. After all, as an adult reader, what better way could one describe the effect of a book that transports you to a moment of your youth or one that conjures the indescribable feelings of your adolescent than saying you were charmed.

Summer Spirit is a book about the oddest of friendships, one between a pre-teen named Louise and the ghost of a girl named Lisa, herself trapped in an eternal pre-teen state and bound to the garden of the house where Louise and her cousins will spend the summer with their grandmother. We watch as Louise and Lisa become friends over the summer, a nicely paced chronology that captures the waxing and waning of young friends. Louise is a bit isolated. She and her cousins are out of sync for what seems like the first time in their lives. The older girls have discovered boys and want to sneak into clubs to drink beers or smoke a joint behind the foliage of their grandmother's garden. They wear bikinis and affect cool personalities. Louise wears a one-piece, and she is entirely content making sandcastles, playing with her troll doll, or smashing open pine nuts with a rock. In Lisa, Louise finds more of a kindred (no, don't do it) spirit (oh, you did it!). Holleville creates a well-matched partner for Louise. Her permanent pre-teen status causes the reader to consider Louise and how she fits, or more appropriately, doesn't fit with her older cousins. Holleville doesn't seem to be idealizing eternal youth with this contrast. In fact, it's quite the opposite. She seems to be idealizing more the idea of youth as a phase. We need our youth, but we can't hold onto it forever. 


So, Summer Spirit is a charming book. And we've established that's a good thing. But what makes it so?

Initially, it's Holleville's art. She manages to balance the cartoony with the realistic, never quite dipping too far into one end or the other. Her style feels more sophisticated than the general middle grades/young adult graphic novel - she is certainly steeped in the Franco-Belgian tradition - but not overly refined to the point that the book loses its sense of itself. Holleville's landscapes, more specifically the veritable arboretum that makes up grandmother's garden and functions almost as a character itself, are beautifully intricate and reminiscent of Glynnis Fawkes lush vistas from the other side of the Mediterranean. Her coloring and use of shading sell the book's summer feel, almost a midpoint on the line between Owen D. Pomeroy's airy Victory Point and Hope Larson's perfectly pastel All Summer Long. Books that feel like summer are going to score consistently high on the charm meter for me.

But it's more than the art that offers the book's charm. There is an idea of imperfection at the center of Summer Spirit, and it is in the way that Holeville can capture arguably the most imperfect time in a person’s life with such ease that makes the book almost deceptive in its construction. While so many YA-type books are often overwrought in their angst and far too precise in their characterization, Summer Spirit inhabits the in-between. There is a certain tone, half visual/half textual, that accurately identifies the kind of contempt the older cousins have for Louise - one that is more of a contempt for her age than for her as a person, but is still of the most vehement variety, because what does an older teenager hate more than someone comfortable with themself. 

Holleville certainly doesn't idealize any of the characters, and the plot situations - outside of the existence of ghosts - seem perfectly believable. Louise finds herself ostracized by her older cousins who would rather flirt with boys on the beach and sneak into clubs underage than build sandcastles or explore their grandmother’s garden. But it is in the relationship between Louise and Lisa that we get the truest and most authentic example of this concept of imperfection. Much of the credit for the authenticity of this relationship, as authentic as a human-poltergeist friendship can be, comes from Holleville’s expert pacing. She never seems to be in a hurry to get anywhere; she lets the friendship develop and coalesce at a leisurely pace. To be fair, Louise and Lisa are still what one would consider fast friends typical of the finite nature tied to these familiar summer friendships, but it’s never all at once. There is a natural ebb and flow that highlights a different kind of age barrier for Louise. While her older cousins have aged out of friendship with Louise, Lisa’s you get appearance belies the sixty-year cultural gap between her and Louise. 

With the supporting cast, Holleville taps into another notion that connects to the concept of imperfection, one that I could best describe as the limited perspective of youth. When I first read the book, I thought there were some dangling plot threads Holleville left unaddressed, and I thought about the implications of this considering the relative tightness of the narrative on whole. But then, after some thoughtful flipping through the book, I realized those threads were supposed to dangle. This is where I think some of Holleville’s true genius as a storyteller reveals itself. The penchant for most writers would be to sew up each of these threads, to make everything complete and tidy. To some degree, I understand that approach, especially if I’m considering the measurable “tightness” of a narrative. But I think that approach can be overly didactic, and Holleville eschews it in such a casual way that I can’t help but be impressed. Life isn’t neat and tidy, mostly not for teenagers. Kids don’t get the explanation for everything they see. Most of their questions are going to go unresolved, at least in the moment. Sometimes, when those events do resolve, the adolescent isn’t even aware, either because it was entirely tangential to them, or because their brains had moved past it by that point. 

It is the idea of hinting at things rather than explaining them that captures the essence of the adolescent experience. Thus, when Holleville drops nuggets of information about the grandmother’s forgetfulness without explaining it out, it’s far more in line with how a kid would observe the situation. When an illicit tryst stops before it starts without any further mention, or when it is clear there are off-panel events that affect the older girls without any additional context for Louise or the reader, these events are indicative of the moments in life kids experience without fully understanding. What we don’t get in the burden of angst explanation; we don’t get the centering that adversely affects so many YA books. Holleville spends more of her time showing rather than telling.


But to get back to the idea of imperfection, it’s precisely in this gap between the two girls that this conceit makes itself most evident. The nature of summer friendships, if not summer itself, is entirely fleeting. The season of long days and free spirits makes way for the death cycle of the shortened sun in autumn. Along the way, Lisa shows her imperfections as she errs in a way that a desperate friend would. She becomes possessive, and ultimately, Louise has to learn a vital lesson about how much of her heart to give to a friend. Her relationship with Lisa turns from one that looks natural and never-ending, to one that becomes hurtful and inevitably doomed. It’s definitely a friendship of convenience, though neither girl seems to understand that until it is too late for both of them to avoid heartbreak. Lisa, who likely hasn’t had a friend in decades, misreads their friendship and ultimately becomes a bad friend by the end of the story, and that seems to be the point all along. There isn’t much time for the reader or even Louise to digest the change; the denouement lands for our own contemplation after reading. Executed by a different storyteller, and this book becomes too much a slice of life - likely still readable enough, but without the sensed impact Holleville provides. On the other end of the spectrum, this book could become entirely too saccharine. The friendship would be beautiful and everlasting. Heck, it might even spawn a series. But what would be the meaning of that? Summer, after all, always ends.