Book review: The Long, Hot Summer by Kathleen McMahon - A family affair that lacks sufficient sizzle
In 2011, Kathleen McMahon, grandaughter of distinguished writer Mary Lavin, caused a sensation when her agent, Marianne Gunn O'Connor, secured her a €684,000 two-book deal at the London Book Fair. Her first, This is How It Ends, spent five weeks at number one in the Irish book charts and was translated into 22 languages. A success, then, which would seem to justify the massive punt on the former RTE journalist's talents.
The Long, Hot Summer is McMahon's second novel, and is a snapshot of a summer in the lives of four generations of a family, headed by matriarch Deirdre O'Sullivan and her estranged husband, Manus McEntee. Manus, we learn, left Deirdre for a man (a much younger man, to add insult to injury), after 28 years of marriage and three children, something the former Abbey actress has never got over. She's almost 80, and, repulsed by the thoughts of her inevitable decline and possible descent into dependancy, hatches a daring, disturbing, plan.
Their grown-up children are also going through strife - Alma, a hard-as-nails broadcaster, and former wife of MEP Mick Collins, is the victim of a violent attack in her home; trophy wife Acushla has a secret that is destroying her marriage to former minister Liam Collins (Mick's brother); while Macdara, Deirdre's favourite, has never recovered from a nervous breakdown "triggered by a picture of a hermaphrodite" during his first weeks at uni, and since then, has lived with, and been supported by, his mother. The tribulations of their grandchildren, unfulfilled housewife Constance and eco-warrior Nora, also feature.
Dublin provides the backdrop - particularly McMahon's own stomping ground of Sandymount - with the Aviva meriting several lyrical mentions "...the stadium occupied the night like a huge paper lantern". Such descriptions illustrate McMahon's flair for simile and metaphor, lifting the book above run-of-the-mill chick lit.
It's clear the author has a gift for language and observation - "It played to Deirdre's sense of vanity for her daughters to drive young men to lose the run of themselves"- but, perversely, it is this very skill for nuance that highlights the parts that don't persuade.
Also, McMahon's characters seem less than fleshed-out; they are line drawings, rather than multilayered oils, and as such, they frequently fail to convince.
Liam, like all the male characters in this book, is an uninspiring specimen of his sex. The men who people this novel's pages have either ruined the lives of their women, or are spineless creatures, or self-absorbed solipsists. The passage featuring Deirdre, a male newborn doll and a bread knife, highlights the 'men are useless articles altogether' undercurrent that permeates this book, which grated.
Love and loss are major themes, but the 'men are from Mars, women are from Venus'-type disconnect between the sexes is driven home to the point where it makes the reader doubt the verity of many of the relationships. Only Manus and his partner - now suffering from dementia - seem to have a relationship that shows any of the complexities of genuine love. The abiding message here seems to be love is an illusory thing, that inevitably leaves the sour taste of disappointment.
If you're looking for an easy summer read, this certainly ticks that box, but it fails to deliver on the glimpses of greatness apparent throughout, that McMahon is, doubtless, capable of, and ultimately, it ends up less than the sum of its parts.
The second novel, it would seem, is up there with the second album: difficult.
The long, hot summer
Kathleen Mcmahon, Sphere, €22.10