The Gypsy Moth Summer
(St. Martin's Press, 2017)
Do we live in our dreams or are we more fully realized in the events that surround us? Is our consumption of literature and fairytales useful in unraveling the intensity of what life throws our way? The Gypsy Moth Summer reads like a fairytale, complete with an enchanted maze that twists the lives of those who enter, just as these same lives run smack up against the Long Island-esque garden’s wall of cancer, race, and class war.
Gypsy moths were released in North America by accident, and proceeded to devastate foliage each year in order to maintain a cycle of life. In a similar way, Leslie, our white charismatic princess figure in this novel, returns to Avalon Island (and its insect infestation) already full of hatred for her father’s company, Grudder Aviation. She blames the company for her miscarriages and mother’s death. She’s joined by her black landscape-architect husband, who stays on if only to save the garden, if not himself. “(Jules) taught children how to feed themselves with a packet of seeds and a bag of soil. He was a magician. . . . She hoped Jules would never understand how she’d become more like her father than she’d ever imagined—obsessed, in love with her plans for destruction.” However, Leslie is not alone. This is an ensemble of revenge.
As in her 2014 debut novel, Cutting Teeth, Julia Fierro catalyzes a diverse group of closely-bound characters seeking to survive their pasts. The imaginary town is divided into cliques—the East Sider’s blonde perfection against the West Sider’s life of machine shops. When the island’s war-monument is tagged and everyone’s personal legacies are threatened, shade is thrown. Calling up D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Mythology, and Romeo and Juliet, dysfunctional families are thrown apart, even as they pull together across old battle lines bestowed by Avalon Island.
It begins magically, reminiscent of the Stage Manager’s opening of Our Town. We’re introduced to the town, and asked to watch the passing of a summer’s history, yet given a protective snow-globe distance: “Before that summer of ’92, people left their front doors unlocked when they turned in for the night, and children, even those who still believed in the witches and wolves of fairy tales, fled to the woods each evening. Be careful, their mothers called as the children threw open screen doors and ran barelegged into the birch turned blue in the otherworldly light that blanketed the island each night.”
This narrative voice continues through the end of the prologue: “By summer’s end, all of Avalon will have seen too much to play make believe at love and war again. So let them believe for now. Let them play... For now, they are young and beautiful...”
The breaking of the magical vow comes as words spray-painted on the town monument: “Grudder is cancer. Grudder kills.” “The new threat was impossible to ignore. Cancer, cancer, whispered worried mothers...” hashed over and over – “The topics heard at summer parties?—vandalism, Clinton advancing towards the White House, caterpillars as “black goo,” cancer. “Pest. Plague. Parasite. The same language used to describe all three.”
From this beginning, six emotionally self-aware characters take turns telling the story of the direct rise and fall of empires. However, allusions to fairy-tales, legend, and classic, mythic literature are part of their common language. It’s as if under a collective spell cast by Morgan Le Fay, the real Queen of Avalon, they all use these references like magical, rose-colored glasses so as not to see reality closing in on them. “Her mother only had to speak the word—“castle”—and an image of the Marshall place sprung into Maddie’s mind, as if from one of Jack’s magic seeds. She and Dom had spent many weekend hours walking the woods around the Marshall gate, its marble eagles staring at them hungrily as they listened for the cries of a trapped princess.”
Fierro, founder of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, has a talent for the specific detail, which creates a close relationship between the reader and the characters. Like looking through someone else’s suitcase; you may not care for all the items inside, but you know something intimate about the owner. The fairytale language will feel enchanting to some readers, while the underpinning of reality will feel satisfying as well.
These well-written characters are diverse and authentic unto themselves. Maddie, on seeing Jules at the County Fair notices “His skin was almost a purplish black. She understood, with a queasy jolt, why her father, uncle, even Vinny and Enzo, called Troy and Mike—the two blacks who worked at the garage and lived on the mainland—‘moolies.’ Behind their backs. It was Neapolitan dialect for ‘eggplant.’ That’s racist, she thought numbly. Then: Am I?”
Fierro’s characters see each other. “Mrs. Peahen stood by the buffet in a shimmery blue dress that made Jules think of porpoises. A jumbo shrimp tail stuck out of her mouth and when she spotted Veronica pulling [Jules] toward her, she nearly dropped her plate.”
She also writes with a strong sense of place and atmosphere. Chapters are offset in a framework of Gypsy Moth field information. Subtly arranged in pairs of uncertain loyalties amongst Leslie, Jules, Maddie, Dom, Veronica, and The Colonel, this structure enforces an “outsider” stance, in which no one can truly belong. Jules and Maddie—who falls in love with Jules’s son and acts like the catalyst to the summer’s explosions—are full center, taking action even as they lose control over what matters to them most, while not realizing it. The most powerful people are white, live in the past and take little page space (The Colonel has only one chapter). Leslie’s villainy is hidden behind small word-count and well-intended Italian thugs, yet even she is drawn fully and compassionately. “The female moths were dying. She knelt on the patio in the faint glow of the black light leaking through the ballroom windows and watched the white moths twitch on the slate floor. These are the mothers, she thought as the pulsing bass of her son’s music made her legs tingle.”
The actual word safely, safe is used directly in the book by many of the characters. It is, as well, a prime motivator for characters to take action. In the prologue, this world used to be safe, but the novel dives into the characters’ unsafe experiences, and then their actions change thier destinies. It might also be a kinesthetic need from reading the prologue. Which brings me back to Jules. His father stays in his mind, constantly warning Jules to be “safe,” which is what Avalon also thought it was before the summer’s events.
Coming in at 400 pages, the novel contains an abundance of fairy-tale epithets that might begin to feel a little like a Rumpelstiltskin’s needle-prick foreshadowing evil and slumber; however, Jules is given just the right amount of enchanted descriptions, (a kiss is described as “the sugar in the bottom of a cup of coffee”) in which he shines as a king of fairyland. Even as he runs into a black lawn jockey at the neighbors’ progressive dinner, he strives to fit in with the islanders and save the beauty of his inherited-through-Leslie’s garden-estate. Fierro’s botanical descriptions become lush plant porn. “The soft pink Heritage; the fragrant Madame Plantier; and what had been his mother’s favorite—he’d planted it outside her bedroom window her final spring so she could watch it unfurl—the Double Delight, with its creamy center and cherry-red edges she’d compared to a lady’s painted parasol, the kind of image she’d only seen in movies and romance novels.” But even in this possession Jules can’t survive his past. He’s left alone in a cauldron of his dead father’s haunting, “his father’s voice had been echoing in his head louder each night Jules spent in the garden. Just as the caterpillars’ feeding hummed louder . . . his father would see these invaders as a sign of his unworthiness to possess such beauty.”