The Summer We Fell Apart by Robin Antalek
Robin Antalek’s first novel, The Summer We Fell Apart, falls into a growing trend of literature that looks at the inner workings of a dysfunctional family. Memoirs like David Sedaris’s, or Augusten Burroughs’s Running with Scissors, have set a standard for crazy with which many families (real and fictive) have a hard time competing. In her debut novel, however, Antalek makes a Herculean effort: we see alcoholics, workaholics, sex addicts, absent mothers, absent fathers, emotionally distant siblings, exotic exchange students, love affairs, burn victims, and gay civil unions portrayed with a vibrant combination of humor and pain.
Antalek’s novel explores the Haas family’s imbroglios through smaller sections that follow the different members of the clan (four siblings and their mother). These stories are told in a linear timeline from the final summer in the family home to a scene many years later where they celebrate a wedding. In one section, Antalek unfolds a love story between George, the gay brother, and the father of one of his high school students. In another, she takes the reader through a wild and destructive night with the oldest Haas brother, Finn. Though a rotating focus on different characters can often add up to one section of a novel being much stronger than the others, throughout, Antalek’s characters and their dilemmas pop off the page with a consistent vibrancy. Her nuanced understanding of the large cast of players here is the driving force of the novel and shines through each individual section, such as when Haas sister Amy’s triumphs against her lifelong fear of diving into the family swimming hole: “My eyes stung and I ached to take a breath as pinpricks of electric shocks rippled through my lungs and filled my chest. I waited until I couldn’t take the pain for a second longer and then I kicked as hard as I could and swam toward the surface.”
Antalek’s prose may reach its pinnacle in the third section of the book, which follows the oldest sibling, Kate. In it she gives her brother, Finn, a second chance by letting him help renovate a new house she has acquired. Throughout Kate’s story, tension builds between the estranged brother and sister, culminating with one of the most beautiful and haunting moments in the novel: Kate’s destruction of a lemon tree that grows on her new property. Antalek mixes the depths of Kate’s frustration with her family and the symbolic destruction of the tree: “Blisters had already begun to form where she had gripped the saw[ . . . ]as she listened to her brother bubble and snort in his sleep, blissfully unconscious, she felt an unfathomably vast, hollowed-out grief for what she’d done.”
As vivid as each individual section is, when put together there isn’t really a unifying theme that resonates beyond what each achieves separately. Throughout, all the Haas children struggle to triumph over their damaged past, but when woven together their stories fail to give a vivid portrait of what exactly went wrong and whether there is a true possibility for them all to be redeemed. This begs the question as to what parts of the family’s story might have been included in this episodic format that could have resulted in a stronger feeling of wholeness.
When all is said and done, however, Antalek has created an interesting world full of vibrant characters. What The Summer We Fell Apart lacks in cohesion it makes up for in wit, tenderness, and vibrant storytelling. This struggling family, despite all their dysfunction, comes off as not only believable, but engaging and lovable as well.