Title: One Summer in Savannah
Author: Terah Shelton Harris
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: July 4, 2023
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
A compelling debut that glows with bittersweet heart and touching emotion, deeply interrogating questions of family, redemption, and unconditional love in the sweltering summer heat of Savannah, as two people discover what it means to truly forgive.
It’s been eight years since Sara Lancaster left her home in Savannah, Georgia. Eight years since her daughter, Alana, came into this world, following a terrifying sexual assault that left deep emotional wounds Sara would do anything to forget. But when Sara’s father falls ill, she’s forced to return home and face the ghosts of her past.
While caring for her father and running his bookstore, Sara is desperate to protect her curious, outgoing, genius daughter from the Wylers, the family of the man who assaulted her. Sara thinks she can succeed—her attacker is in prison, his identical twin brother, Jacob, left town years ago, and their mother are all unaware Alana exists. But she soon learns that Jacob has also just returned to Savannah to piece together the fragments of his once-great family. And when their two worlds collide—with the type of force Sara explores in her poetry and Jacob in his astrophysics—they are drawn together in unexpected ways.
One Summer in Savannah is a difficult book to describe. It’s the story of Sara, a woman in her mid-20s who swore she’d neve return to her home town of Savannah. At age 18, she was raped and then vilified at the trial that convicted the rapist, the gifted son of a very powerful old-money family. Upon discovering that she was pregnant, Sara fled to a state that doesn’t allow rapists parental rights and kept her daughter’s existence a secret from the Wyler family. Eight years later, when Sara’s father is ill and has limited time left, she reluctantly returns, still intending to keep Alana hidden from the Wylers.
Meanwhile, Jacob — identical twin to Daniel, the rapist — also returns to Savannah. Daniel is dying of leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant, and although Jacob cut his entire family out of his life after the trial, he can’t deny his brother the help he desperately needs.
As Sara and Jacob encounter one another, she recognizes his kindness and his own painful past, and allows him to begin tutoring Alana, a genius who needs the inspiration and guidance that Jacob can provide. Sara and Jacob each navigate their own paths toward healing, seeking ways to move forward after pain and loss.
I have to be honest — at 30%, I was about ready to put the book down. The writing style did not especially work for me — very stilted in places, and then overly reliant on imagery and metaphor in others. Beyond that, there were plot elements that seemed jarring or unlikely, such as:
- Sara’s father has spoken only in poetry since her childhood. I mean, ONLY in poetry. He conducts conversations by reciting lines of poetry that are relevant to the situation, and those who are close to him seem to be able to understand and parse his meaning.
- There’s also the fact that the main character ends up falling in love with the identical twin of the man who raped her. Jacob is a lovely, wonderful person — but the relationship never truly felt believable.
- Everyone in the book is super special. Sara becomes a poet; Jacob is an astrophysicist; Daniel, we are told, was destined for great things (his mother insists that he would have cured cancer, if not for that awful girl who told lies about him and ruined his life); and Alana is a genius who solves unsolvable math equations and taught herself three languages by the age of eight. It’s all a bit much.
- Another complaint — there are plot points that are referred to, but not shown. For example, Jacob helps Sara’s father write a letter to Sara which has a huge emotional impact on her, but we don’t see the letter. Another example — Daniel gives a TV interview in which he owns up to what he’s done, but we only hear about it in passing, rather than getting to glimpse what he said.
Meanwhile, Daniel and his mother Birdie remain fairly terrible until close the end, when they both get a sort of redemption, but I’m not sure we saw enough to feel that they actually earned it.
Themes of redemption and forgiveness are dominant throughout the story, and some scenes are moving — but overall, this book just didn’t work well for me. Too many discordant notes, too many details that felt false, and a writing style that keeps the characters at a distance for much of the story.