Classic Novels Set During the Summer

Every season has its own personality, but there’s something about summer—the steamy heat, the long slow days, the interruption of school and work routines, travels away from home—that sets it apart. In literature as in life summer has become synonymous with love, adventure, and self-discovery…and, occasionally, heartache. This week, as the Bas Bleu editors prepare our Autumn 2019 edition (yes, it’s only June!), we’re savoring the season here and now with a list of ten classic novels set during the summer. (By the way: SPOILER ALERT!)

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald: Jay Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy Buchanan knows no season, but a single Long Island summer is all it takes to rekindle their youthful love…and destroy the man and his dream. Daisy and her husband, Tom, decamp for Long Island in the summer of 1922, where her ex, the former Jimmy Gatz, is waiting. Sure, Gatsby could have engineered a “chance meeting” with Daisy in springtime Manhattan, but summer on the shore—with its lavish parties, steamy afternoon assignations, and dreamlike escape from life in the city—is an undeniable aphrodisiac. Unfortunately, all summers must come to end.

Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan: Sagan’s debut novel was published in 1954, when the French writer was just eighteen years old. That’s probably why its story—about teenage Cécile and her transformative summer on the French Riviera—rings so true. Mostly neglected by her womanizing father and his young mistress, Cécile is free to do as she pleases, which is mostly spending her days on the beach and exploring her sexuality with her next-door neighbor. But when another girlfriend of her father’s shows up, her good intentions disrupt Cécile’s carefree summer…and lead to tragic results.

Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury: Though technically a novel, this collection of tales by the prolific science-fiction writer has an autobiographical ring to it. The book follows twelve-year-old Douglas through the summer of 1928 in his Illinois hometown, where he spends his days playing with friends, hanging out with his family, and generally being a kid. Over the course of the season, Douglas’s father bottles his medicinal dandelion wine, “summer caught and stoppered” for use against winter’s ailments. By the end of summer, Douglas finally understands that the “mundane” aspects of life—much like the common dandelion—are the most precious and memorable.

Atonement, Ian McEwan: After graduating from Cambridge, Cecilia Tallis returns to her family’s country estate for the summer, reuniting with Robbie Turner, the Tallis family housekeeper’s son and Cecilia’s former friend and classmate. The sleepy summer idyll is disrupted when guests arrive for a visit, throwing Cecilia and Robbie together and igniting the simmering attraction between them. But when their relationship is misinterpreted by Cecilia’s little sister on the same night that a crime is committed on the estate, all of their lives will change forever.

Jaws, Peter Benchley: Like so many great films, Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws was based on a book. The son of a children’s novelist, Peter Benchley worked as a speechwriter for Lyndon Johnson before selling his debut novel—about a great white shark terrorizing beachgoers at a summer resort—to Doubleday in 1971. The novel spent more than nine months on bestseller lists, but the film rights were sold even before the book hit shelves in 1974. Jaws the movie whittled down the novel’s supporting characters and subplots, and Spielberg changed the book’s ending for the screen, but we’re confident this is one book that’ll keep you out of the water this summer.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee: This acclaimed novel spans several years, but its primary plot—the trial of Tom Robinson and its tragic aftermath—occur in the summer of 1935. Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her big brother Jem usually spend their summers in Maycomb, Alabama, with their friend Dill, their days dedicated to playing outdoors and speculating about their reclusive neighbor Boo. But when Scout and Jem’s father, Atticus, defends Tom, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, the children are forced to face the prejudice and violence of the segregated world in which they live.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith: Sun-drenched Italy is the setting for this dark-hearted psychological thriller by the masterful Patricia Highsmith. Tom Ripley is a small-time con man hired by wealthy Herbert Greenleaf to retrieve his errant son Dickie from Italy and bring him home to take his proper place in the family business. Tom is immediately taken with Dickie, enamored of the latter’s glamorous life to the point of obsession. Soon Tom wants more than just to be like Dickie; he wants to be Dickie. And that is not good news for Dickie…

Summer, Edith Wharton: Newland Archer and Lily Bart may move in privileged circles in Gilded Age New York, but the main character of Wharton’s novel Summer doesn’t live so large. Born poor and given up by her parents, Charity Royall is raised by a small-town lawyer in New England. By the age of seventeen, Charity is restless and bored…and primed for a passionate summer love affair with Lucius, a charming architect visiting from New York. But this is an Edith Wharton novel, and she’s not about to turn sentimental. At least, not without giving her characters a hard lesson in the realities of class and gender in America.

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner: Families often hit the road in summertime, but the journey chronicled in William Faulkner’s novel is no beach trip. Matriarch Addie Bundren’s last wish is to be buried in her hometown, and there’s not a moment to waste transporting a dead body through the suffocating Mississippi summer heat. The Bundrens face obstacles and challenges at nearly every turn of their odyssey, from bad weather and injury to epic family conflict. And you thought your family’s summer trips were dramatic!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare: The Bard’s fantastical comedy starring Hermia and Lysander, Oberon and Titania, Bottom and Puck straddles the human and fairy worlds, weaving a magical midsummer’s tale that’s four hundred years old and yet still sparkles. “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

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