It is that end of summer time, that back to school time, that Congressional recess is over time, that time for something light to read. With that in mind, Last Summer by Michael Thomas Ford should fit well with the shorter days and sudden, welcome crispness in the morning air.
First, a disclaimer. This reviewer lived in, and loves Provincetown, and many gay and lesbian readers are loyal to it as well. So be warned: It is as if Ford read a few guidebooks about Provincetown, or maybe traveled through it briefly, in a haze. If you can ignore the regular references to restaurants and houses along the ocean (Provincetown is on a harbor), the fact that two characters meet at the Laundromat (of which, due to serious, and chronic, water shortages, there is none), or the lack of financial fear any character feels, then read on and enjoy. Ford has clearly created his Provincetown, and if you are willing, it will be fun to go along for the ride.
Another warning: Ford's writing is hit-or-miss. Overall, it's workmanlike. Words move characters through plots with enjoyable directness, which is part of what makes the novel so easy to read. Phrases like "after a bout of particularly passionate lovemaking, " however, and an overabundance of italicized interior monologues, betray a clumsiness that can be distracting. There are also isolated lines of beautiful writing and some flat-out great moments as well -- look for a bit about what to call a grouping of lesbians, and a quick, hilarious discussion of Julia Roberts. Sometimes these bits work, sometimes they don't. It feels as if Ford needed to get in all the funny quips he'd been storing up for years.
The rolling cast of characters includes Josh, a too-loyal, too-perfect representative of the gay man who doesn't want random sex, glamour, or partying, and only wishes that his lover of eight years hadn't cheated on him with a trick at the gym; Emmeline, a cabaret performer, long-time P'town resident, and pre-operative transsexual; Jackie, a black, lesbian, bar owner newly single and turning forty; Reid Truman and Ty Rusk, movie producer and star; Reilly, son of an old P'town family, engaged to the daughter of an old Cape Cod family, tradition-bound and fantasizing about sex with men; Toby Evans, a seventeen year old Missouri boy who has been kicked out by his religious parents and comes to Provincetown to escape; Devin, a local bad girl who wants desperately to transcend her small town roots; and Marly Prentis, director of "the Arts House, " an odd approximation of Provincetown's real, and wonderful, Fine Arts Work Center. The characters all interact at some point, and Ford does an admirable job of keeping each character, and their various orbits, moving quickly and enjoyably through the summer air.
That ability to move and intermingle his characters will earn the author one high accolade: this book reads like Tales of the City. Emmeline even admits that she sees herself as a Mrs. Madrigal for the young, lost, Provincetown set. With short, fast-moving chapters that end, almost inevitably, with a resolution or cliffhanger, Last Summer is a good, soapy read. (Accordingly, there are a few very hot sex scenes for the boys...)
Each of these characters' stories begins at a turning point in their lives and resolves themselves neatly by the last page. This is one of the novel's weakest (or, if you are a fan of Harlequin romances, strongest) points. Everything works out, just as you knew it would, with the hero getting the perfect guy, the homos triumphing over adversity, and the bad girl getting her due. Ford keeps the plot twists coming, and they are great fun to read, but it's difficult to invest deeply in the characters when they have been set up, so obviously, for completion, redemption, and happiness in the end.