Summer Lies by Bernhard Schlink
As a bookseller, I’ve heard the occasional customer say they ‘don’t like short stories’. Some of the complaints run along the lines of ‘too short’, or ‘I wanted to know what happened next but the story ended’ and ‘I liked the character a lot, but I wanted to get to know him/her better’.
If this sounds familiar, or you’re a novel-lover wanting to try shorter fiction, Bernhard Schlink’s collection is for you. (Schlink is the German author who wrote the 1997 bestseller The Reader, which was later made into an award-winning movie starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes.)
Summer Lies contains seven long stories, some which take place over extended periods of time, allowing Schlink to examine each character and motivation in detail. The first, ‘After the Season’, explores an unexpected romance between middle-aged Richard (a flautist) and Susan (a philanthropist). Both are at Cape Cod after the official summer season and a chance encounter at a restaurant leads to a growing connection.
Told from Richard’s perspective, the story explores the insecurities and difficulties of finding love later in life. Richard worries whether he can sexually satisfy his new lover, and is also beset with insecurity when he discovers that Susan is extremely wealthy. Within a short period of time they begin to contemplate a life together, but when he returns to New York, Richard wonders if he can exchange his comfortable, pragmatic single life for a different one. This is a beautifully nuanced story with wonderful insights into living and loving.
The ‘lies’ of the title come clearly into view in the second story, ‘The Night in Baden-Baden’. The main character, a writer, finds himself caught up in the web of untruths he has told his girlfriend. The conflict is in the man’s desire for both commitment and freedom. His girlfriend tells him, ‘You need to tell me the truth so that I’ve got solid ground beneath my feet’; however, he decides that the lies are easier to live with than reality, and so sets the scene for larger conflicts.
All the stories involve betrayals – of trust mostly – and the most powerful focuses on an elderly professor who knows he is dying from cancer and calls his extended family together at their summer house. ‘The Last Summer’ examines Thomas’s past as he wonders whether he has ever experienced true happiness. He has a secret that not even his wife knows, in that when the pain from his cancer becomes unbearable he plans to drink the lethal concoction Nembutal. He can think of no better way to die than surrounded by his family, whom he hopes will believe his heart has failed. But his wife, who is already suspicious of his extreme courteousness and dedication, finds the cocktail and confronts him.
Schlink is in fine form in this collection and his stories have an existential nature to them even when they focus on the minutiae of each character’s life. However, these small moments are often the turning points, or as Susan from ‘After the Season’ comments, ‘Nothing happens for a long time, then suddenly we get a surprise, have an encounter, reach a decision point, and we’re no longer the same as we were before.’
Annie Condon is a writer and convenor of a Readings’ Contemporary Book Club.