Reviews: July/August 2018

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Summer Hours at the Robbers Library
Sue Halpern ’77
HarperCollins, $19.99
Reviewed by Debra Spark ’84

Debra Spark’s most recent novel is Unknown Caller. She is a professor at Colby College in Maine.

Sue Halpern’s latest novel, Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, takes place in 2010 during the Obama administration, and something of the novel’s amiability, despite the very real trouble it addresses, seems to belong to what already feels like a more innocent age. The narrative offers pain without rage, a sense that differences are manageable and conflict and loss are part of life.

The novel and its titular library are set in Riverton, New Hampshire. The architecture exhibits vestiges of better days, but the actual businesses are gloomy. If you want to shop, you go to the Dollar Store. If you want an overnight stay, you’ll find yourself at the Tip-Top Motel. And so, the underfunded library is one of the liveliest enterprises in town—not just because it has books and computers for browsing, but because people gather there. Their intersecting dramas, all of them stories of characters in need, constitute the novel’s plot. Sometimes the need is simply for more active days (as with the elderly men who form a coffee klatch called “The Four”) or for money, as with former Wall Streeter Rust, who has come to town searching for an inheritance.

The primary characters, though, are librarian Kit, a newcomer living alone in a fixer-upper of a house that she is not fixing up; and Sunny, a summer intern, whose punishment for stealing a dictionary is an unpaid stint at the library. The disciplinary measure serves as welcome release from her parents, parodies of latter-day hippies. The story moves forward with humor, psychological insight, and the promise of a tantalizing backstory.

The sense from the opening pages is that all the characters will unite rather than divide, finding common cause despite their differences. Could this novel, with its light touch and almost nostalgic sweetness, have been written over the course of our current presidential administration? It seems unimaginable.