Tove Jansson, The Summer Book

Tove Jannson, age nine, 1923

Tove Jannson, age nine, 1923

We are up on the St. Lawrence River this month, as we usually are in July. I brought The Summer Book with me again, an my copy here joins the one I left behind last year. Embarrassed by the duplication, I read it.

While I had a lot to say about my mixed feelings about Offill, I’m not sure how to explain the small delights of this wonderful book—or maybe it’s just that I don’t have the patience on this gorgeous July day to try. This novel in stories from 1972 by Tove Jansson, author of the Moomin books, is a little wonder and a great, unsentimental, gorgeous summer read. The New York Review of Books reprint includes her illustrations.

It tells the story of young Sophia, based, apparently, on Jansson’s niece of the same name, who spends her summer on an island off the Finnish coast with her elderly grandmother and her Papa. Papa is a minor character—mostly, he has his back to his mother and daughter, sitting hunched over the table, working. Sophia’s mother is dead and, as Kathryn Davis notes in her lovely introduction to this volume, that absence is about all the plot of the book.

Episodes cover the small events of an island summer: a storm, the arrival of a cat, a nouveau riche neighbor, a night in a tent, Papa’s sudden desire for a garden. Both grandmother and Sophia are moody. They irritate each other, cheat at cards, I particularly liked the one in which Grandmother constructs Venice of balsa wood. She sets it next to the water but a storm overnight destroys her models. Rather than upset the already fragile and tantrum-y child, she builds another model and then, to make it look as though it survived the storm, she tosses tea and the contents of her ashtray on the new model.

A deeply charming book. Highly recommended.