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My Kindle has been both a blessing and a curse during my 6 months in Colombia. A blessing because I can now access lots of books at UK prices, and am not limited to paying over the odds for the New York Times bestsellers, but a curse because I have been doing that - buying LOTS of books. I bought this book because it was in the Amazon summer sale - and still is as I write this - for £1.49. Bargain! I would have been tempted at that price regardless, but I had also read another of Wiggs' books and like it, so that sealed the deal. This book is, in fact, the first in an ongoing series about Willow Lake, and was first published in 2006, though had I seen it in a shop or in the library I doubt I would have picked it up as the cover is old fashioned and, to me, makes it look like it's for a much older readership. Looking at her website this seems to be her signature cover design (Times New Roman author name, swirly title) and the only one which doesn't match is the other book of hers I had read. I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I still think it's odd that the modern and fun insides come with such a drab and subdued exterior.
I didn't bother reading the blurb before purchasing (for £1.49 I'd rather just get going) but had I done so, again I would have been hooked, as the book centres around a summer camp. From my pre-teen years I have always had a mild obsession with the iconic summer destination of American children, and it's a life regret that I never attended one (after never attending a Mallory Towers-esque boarding school). This camp - Camp Kioga - is a bit different though. It has been in the family for many years, but closed a decade ago and has since fallen into disrepair. With the owners' Golden Wedding Anniversary approaching, they can think of nowhere better to host the celebrations of a 50 year marriage, but it will take some dedicated work and more than a little TLC to get the camp in a fit state to host guests again. Lucky for them, their granddaughter Olivia is a house stager (or, as she would put it, a fluffer). It is her job to take properties that are on the market and 'dress' them in such a way that they become irresistible to potential buyers: fresh cut flowers on the table, flip flops by the shower, expensive oils or wines in the kitchen. And though it's a bigger project than any she's done before, after a bit of coercing, and some drama in her personal life, she agrees to leave Manhattan and spend the summer upstate in the wilderness, revamping the camp.
Olivia didn't always use to be who she is now. 15 years ago, she was Lolly, a quiet, bookish, misfit girl with divorced parents and more than a smidge of puppy fat and the natural target for a bit of bullying during her summers as a camper. Now, though, she's successful in business (if not in her love life) and is tanned, toned and gorgeous. If those tormenters could only see her now.... And what do you know? A friend from the past happens to end up helping her out in the renovations, which is both satisfying and terrifying at the same time.
I really fell into this book and enjoyed both the story and the pace at which it moved. The book is mainly set in the here and now, with a few recollections of past summers spreading from pre-teen to post-college years which fit in nicely with the story, allowing you to feel that you're remembering the past along with the characters. This is definitely a family story, fit for a family camp. While Olivia and old flame / old foe Connor get most of the action, her father also has a story of his own that needs to be told, with secrets to be uncovered. Olivia's uncle and cousins join them at the camp, though feature in a more minor role until Connor's brother makes an appearance and sets hearts fluttering.
You definitely get a good feel of the camp through the pages, both the layout of it physically and its organisational set up, helped along by the extracts from the camp rules and the camp song book between chapters. I liked the way a rule would be given and then a memory would clearly show how it had been flaunted, for example the strict law about displays of affection followed on the next page by someone recollecting how they used to sneak out to do naughty things with their girlfriend, even when they were supposedly on duty. All in all, though, Camp Kioga was clearly a traditional, caring camp and I couldn't help but support Olivia et al's efforts to rejuvenate it, even if only for the anniversary celebrations.
Any book like this wouldn't be complete without a love story or two, and 'Summer at Willow Lake' does not disappoint. Olivia is unlucky in love - with 3 broken engagements behind her, the most recent part of the catalyst of her moving to the camp for the summer - and she seems like such a nice girl that I wanted her to find someone new, but at the same time was protective of her, knowing of her history with a certain someone. And, given the wealth and status of the Bellamy family, it seemed only appropriate that there were some juicy skeletons in the family closet just waiting to be unearthed. I liked the way the class divide was shown through generations, with Olivia's mother being much more concerned about her daughter socialising with 'the right kind of people', both as a child and as a 20-something, than Olivia herself was. With Father being a lot less snobby than Mother (and we find out exactly why in the book), it makes Olivia's attitude more understandable than if both parents were 'above' the riff raff of poor people and drunks and manual workers who also enter into the story.
This is a book not lacking in drama or pain, and yet for the most part it is a cheerful, upbeat book with some funny moments, starting from the very first page when Olivia finds herself stuck up a flagpole, with a rescuer who seems a little too interested in this view of her rear end. Even with the skinny dipping and midnight romps, this is a fairly tame and inoffensive book, that comes off almost as wholesome as the camp itself clearly was.
Any complaints? I thought Olivia's work partner, Freddy, was a bit of a flat character, who either needed more input into the story or could have been written out entirely. He popped up only occasionally which seemed odd for someone living on site with the gang. Also, because the descriptions were delicious, I kinda wish they had gone to the bakery more often and bought more baked goods - towards the end the visits were for other reasons with barely an éclair mentioned, which seemed a shame.
At 544 paper pages this is a decent book in terms of length - something you also can't tell when you Kindle it. It took me a few days to plough through as I ration my books here and read only at the gym, and it was easy to remember where I was up to every time I picked it back up. Towards the end, though, I couldn't bear to put it down as a number of climaxes were being reached at once, and I wanted to know exactly what happened. The Kindle formatting is good if a little condensed (no spaces between paragraphs) and I very much enjoyed reading this book. It is contemporary fiction with a dash of romance and not at all fusty as the cover might have you believe.
This is a great, light-hearted summer read which you can lose yourself in. The characters are, Freddy aside, well developed and interesting, and I found none of them irritating or false. Their behaviour over the years remained age appropriate, and even with Lolly's could dramatic translation into Olivia, you could still see the girl she once was underneath her new, more polished shell.
Highly recommend. If you're a Kindle owner especially I would grab it at the current price, as you'll be grabbing yourself a bargain. As for me, I'm off to Kindle the next one in the series as I've far from had my fill of the Bellamys and their ragamuffin gang of friends and acquaintances.
ISBN 0778323250 , Amazon new paperback is £4.55 / Kinde is £1.49 in July 2011
For a full book list see: http://www.susanwiggs.com/bibliog.shtml