DUELING REVIEW: The Fourth Summer by Kathleen Gilles Seidel
Janine: I read my first Kathleen Gilles Seidel romance in 2005, though the book had been published in 1994. It was Again, a contemporary romance that took place on the set of daytime soap opera and dealt with the interpersonal politics between cast and crew almost as much as with the love triangle at its center.
Jennie, who read Again around the same time, wasn’t such a fan. But she gave Seidel another try, and she liked the second Seidel she tried much better. I think that was Till the Stars Fall, the book about the rock band. Do I have that right?
Jennie: Yes! I think that may be the only one of her books that I liked better than you did.
Janine: In the years that followed, I read most of Seidel’s backlist, and when I heard that after a long absence from the romance genre, she was coming out with The Fourth Summer, a new romance, I requested an ARC immediately. And then I asked Jennie whether she would like to review it with me.
The Fourth Summer begins when Seth Street, twenty-five-year-old celebrity snowboarder and Olympic bronze medalist, receives a summons for jury duty. Seth resides in Oregon, where he has two close friends, Nate and Ben. But his driver’s license registration is still in his native North Carolina, and he’s already deferred two previous jury summons, so now he has no choice but to show up there.
Seth starts out a bit self-centered and immature, and he scans the jury assembly room for attractive women. He notices two blondes before his eyes land on a hipster brunette working on a laptop, her face hidden by her hand. But when she moves, he recognizes her as someone from his past.
Seth’s relationship with Caitlin McGraw began as friendship, when she was thirteen and he fourteen. Seth was an ambitious teenager whose working-class parents had sacrificed for his Olympic dreams but insisted that he spend summers with them in North Carolina.
Caitlin’s middle-class parents were embarrassed by her teenaged older sister Trina’s pregnancy. Trina’s decision to keep the baby meant that just when they should have been keeping their eye on Caitlin, Caitlin’s parents were preoccupied with caring for their baby grandson, Dylan.
Caitlin and Seth’s friendship lasted for three summers. At fifteen and sixteen, they became lovers. When they parted company in the autumn, Caitlin and her family moved to San Diego, and Seth, a busy Olympic hopeful, stopped returning Caitlin’s emails.
Now Caitlin is twenty-four and a freelance video game designer from San Francisco (like Seth, she is still registered in North Carolina) and at first, she tries to ignore Seth. Eventually, though, they strike up a conversation. When the day ends and jury selection isn’t yet completed, they go to the docks where they used to hang out, climb a tree, and after they climb down, this conversation happens.
He kept his hands on her waist. “It’s really good to see you again.”
Were they going to play games? When they had been kids, she had promised that she wouldn’t do that. She had said she would be straight with him when she was ready. And she had been.
She put her hands on his shoulders. He could feel the weight of her big watch. “I’d like us to be friends,” he said.
She knew what he was asking. “With benefits?”
“If that works for you.”
“It works for me,” she said. Her hands started to move, caressing his shoulders.
He bent his head and kissed her.
But a few pages after this rather unromantic beginning, something changes.
He knew that it would be all right to slip the panties off, open his khakis, and enter her now. She was ready. But then it would be over. And he didn’t want it to be over.
Or so matter-of-fact. You wanna have sex? This ought to mean something. Things didn’t mean enough anymore.
As readers may have guessed, Seth and Caitlin are both selected for the jury. Caitlin, whose father is a navy judge, views this as a civic responsibility. To Seth, who was planning to shoot a promotional video in New Zealand, jury duty is nothing but an inconvenience, but his endorsements, including one from his parents’ snowboard-making business, mean he can’t do anything untoward like refuse to serve.
The case involves a political scandal, so the judge decides that the jury should be sequestered, even though that’s not generally done in North Carolina. Because the deputies have no experience with sequestration, the twelve jurors and four alternates are bussed to a crappy motel where the water tastes awful. They are ordered to remain in their rooms when unsupervised, not talk to each other about the case, and not to touch.
In short order, the jury members get on each other’s nerves. One man sits too close to Caitlin on purpose, another hogs up the phone so others can’t call their families. A woman tries to dictate what everyone can eat, another has a grating nervous laugh. And so on.
In the days that follow, things go from bad to worse between the jurors; their experience personifies the line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit, “Hell is other people.”
Can the situation be salvaged? Does Seth even want to salvage it, and with it, Caitlin’s opinion of him? Is he capable of enough growth to sustain and nurture both the jury and a serious relationship, and even if so, will Caitlin believe in him?
The Fourth Summer is written in third person, with a dual timeline that shifts from the present-day storyline to Seth and Caitlin’s past. I loved this book, but I have some caveats, and I’ll begin with those, listing them in the order in which they came up in the book.
I didn’t think that Seth could be that big a celebrity on the basis of a bronze medal win and his endorsement of his family’s products, but since that was part of the premise of the novel, I went with it.
Jennie: You know, that didn’t even really register with me, though it’s a valid issue. I guess I assumed he was a celebrity in the world of his sport and in the small town he was from, but not famous in the larger sense (not scoring People covers).
Janine: I guess that’s possible, but I didn’t read it that way.
The story of Trina, Caitlin’s pregnant teen sister, took place in the background. Early in the book, Caitlin tells Seth that several years after baby Dylan’s birth, Trina reunited with Trevor, Dylan’s father. As a teen, Trevor was enough of a deadbeat dad that I felt some ambivalence about that.
Jennie: I did too, especially when we found out that Trevor was able to go to college and join a frat and have a “normal” late teenagerhood/early adulthood. It felt really unfair to me. (Though I suppose you could look at it another way and say that he lost time with Dylan he would never get back.)
Janine: It was unfair.
On the second summer of their friendship, fifteen-year-old Seth confesses to Caitlin that he had sex—with a woman in her early twenties who came on to him. I see that as childhood sexual abuse, but there was no room in the novel for that aspect of it to get explored, so I wish that this incident had been omitted.
Jennie: Yes, I could’ve done without that. It was a little icky and I think it would’ve been more powerful if Seth and Caitlin were each other’s firsts.
Janine: When Caitlin mentioned that she was the only straight person at her former Silicon Valley workplace, I was flabbergasted. Despite its thriving gay community, the Bay Area has a majority of straight people, I believe (According to a survey by Gallup, in 2012-2014, 6.2% of people in the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward metro area identified as LGBT).
Fred, the only member of the jury who was truly villainous, had too many negative qualities, and I wasn’t happy that he was described as heavyset.
Jennie: There’s something quite old-fashioned and stereotypical about the portrayals of most of the secondary characters. The female characters (except Caitlin) are interested in weddings and crafts (scrapbooking, knitting). The one gay character is a soft-spoken chef. The older black lady is “a majestically built African American Southern grandmother radiating a ‘say grace before dinner’ ethos.” A juror who gets kicked off early is a bossy Asian woman with an obsession for order. I could go on, but you get the picture. It bothered me in part because I’m pretty sensitive to certain types of stereotypes in fiction, but also because I’ve come to expect better in contemporaries lately, where different voices have allowed for more diverse portrayals.
Given that Seidel’s writing is idiosyncratic in many ways, I don’t understand why the characters conformed so to stereotypes. Why couldn’t the black grandmother be into yoga and meditation? Why couldn’t the gay guy be a UPS driver or a cable tv technician? Why did the women all have to be so stereotypically female, with their refusal to order food off a Chinese menu? (After one of the women says she doesn’t need to order, they all refuse to order anything, presumably for fear of appearing to be a human being who actually eats food.)
Janine: I didn’t mind the women being into wedding and crafts, because there are whole books in the genre that are carved around wedding planning or arts and crafts. The not ordering thing was mostly there to present a problem in the plot, I thought. But Marcus being a chef definitely registered with me as a stereotype, even if he wasn’t portrayed in negative light. The controlling Asian juror is even more problematic, though she wasn’t on page long enough for me to make that connection. Fred the villain being fat got to me for personal reasons.
There is also a scene in which Fred uses a racist epithet to Delia, another juror, and Seth is unsure how to react. Fred was clearly a villainous character and was dealt with soon after, but I was still discomfited by that.
Jennie: I felt like Seth not knowing what to say was realistic, but also disappointing. He already struck me as rather young and callow in general, so I would’ve really have liked to see him react appropriately – it would’ve made me feel better about his maturity level.
Janine: Yeah. Doing the right thing might not have fit that early in his personal journey, but it was still upsetting. I felt for Delia in that moment more than for him.
Lastly, it bugged me a bit when, late in the novel, Caitlin gave up her hipster look. It felt like this was done to signal growth. I had really liked her style of dressing because it was fresh and different, and I don’t necessarily see conformity as a sign of happiness.
Jennie: I found it confusing. On the one hand, Caitlin really didn’t seem to like her new look – it wasn’t even her choice, she just kind of let the hairdresser do what she wanted. OTOH, everyone else raved about it. I couldn’t tell if we were supposed to think that others liked it because she fitted in better in small-town North Carolina, and if so, was that really a good thing? Then it felt like the issue was dropped in the end.
Janine: It used to be a cliché that a female character with an edgy look gave that up for a more traditionally feminine style as she found her happiness, and I saw it in that light, though you’re right that the way it was written made it confusing.
Now to what I loved. I appreciated—so much—that this was a story about subtle growth and maturation. This type of character arc is getting hard to find. The subtlety and nuance here were hugely compelling.
Jennie: I’ll agree that this was a strength in the book even if sometimes the nuance was a little too…nuanced for me.
Janine: I think many of today’s books tend to be less subtle about who is a hero and who is not, but I actually miss some of the shades of gray from past portrayals.
Jennie: I can agree with that. In theory, at least. I always say that I want more shades of gray in romance but I am aware that some shades work better for me than others.
Janine: Among the minor characters, no one was perfect or idealized, but with the exception of Fred, no one was all bad, either.
Seth does not start out a hero, but neither is he a villain. I was willing to accept his initial occasional self-focus and immaturity for three reasons—it was clear to me his arc would be to outgrow it, he was still young enough that it was forgivable, and he had enough self-awareness to joke about it, even early on.
Jennie: I never warmed that much to Seth. He felt young for his age.
Janine: Here I disagree vehemently. He’s only twenty-five. I know guys in their twenties who are a lot less mature than Seth. I feel he is only young for his age *for a romance hero.* This is a genre in which guys can be Manhattan real estate billionaires, alpha leaders of whatever group, or protective, sensitive mates, at age twenty-five. But tell me, how many twenty-five-year-olds do you know IRL who are like that?
I’m getting at the fact that many books in the genre aren’t that concerned with believability, and that’s an issue for me. At times, Seth’s immaturity was a little too real and protracted, but he never came across as a caricature, as some romance heroes do.
Jennie: You’re right – he’s a realistic twenty-five-year-old. But I think this goes back to “shades of gray” and my own push-pull with realism. There are a lot of people in their mid-twenties (these days, in particular, it seems, though I don’t want to be guilty of “in my day…” thinking) that aren’t very mature at all. I’m not sure I want to read about them as romance heroes and heroines, though.
Janine: Even though Seth hadn’t finished maturing, he wasn’t so immature as to make me feel that way. I don’t necessarily need characters to be fantasy material.
Jennie: Overall, the timeline in The Fourth Summer felt a bit off to me. Seth and Caitlin were obviously quite young when they were first together, but they still seemed really young to me the second time around. I kind of wanted them, particularly Caitlin, to get more life experience before the HEA.
Janine: I agree and disagree. I wished Caitlin was a bit older, but on the other hand, if Seth had been much older than twenty-five, then his maturation arc would have been really annoying.
Caitlin was the most appealing character in the book to me. She was an interesting heroine, with her skateboarding past, her outsider experiences, and her straightforward but never schmaltzy desire to perform her civic duty. But she too had moments of imperfection and small-mindedness, such as when other jurors took over gifts her parents sent her. That just made her more human and approachable to me.
Jennie: Again, this is where I feel like I *should* appreciate the nuance, but Caitlin’s judginess toward her fellow jurors bugged me. She initially seemed to have a petty dislike for almost all of them, and it made her come off like a snob and a bit of a misanthrope to me.
Janine: I didn’t see her that way at all. She had been somewhat neglected by her parents because of their focus on her pregnant sister and the baby, and she still carried emotional wounds from that.
There is a moment when some of the other jurors take over the care package Caitlin got from her parents and while on the outside she’s nodding and agreeing that they can use her stuff, on the inside she has this childish reaction of When is it my turn?
That was one of my favorite moments in the book, because it highlighted a need for love and attention that had never been met, and I thought Caitlin’s ability to recognize what she felt, as well as disregard that need and put the other jurors first showed self-awareness, generosity and strength.
Janine: One of the things I appreciate about Seidel’s style of writing is the wealth of unusual details like the Christmas tree farm that teenaged Seth and Caitlin spot near a town and two rivers as they bike. Seidel’s style of writing isn’t poetic, but I can visualize what she describes, and prosaic details like the bug spray that features in the teens’ courtship lends her worlds the texture of reality.
Jennie: And again, I think this is something that I feel like I should appreciate, but it bugged me. At one point she describes a water cooler: “…a five-gallon jug of springwater inverted on top of the cooler.” I felt like, really? You can’t just say water dispenser and leave it at that? The prosaic details tended to feel clunky and thus irritating to me.
I do get that other people find that kind of detail puts them into the story rather than taking them out of the story. I remember reading and reviewing Jack Finney’s Time and Again, which I hated in part because of the (bizarre to me) focus on minutiae. A lot of people in the comments loved the book for the exact reason I couldn’t stand it.
My reaction to the details in The Fourth Summer wasn’t as intense, but it was on the same spectrum.
Janine: This is getting into a technical area, but I generally prefer descriptive details when they’re not something I would visualize anyway. The water cooler is a detail you could visualize with less description, but would you have thought there would be a Christmas tree farm there if it hadn’t been mentioned?
However, when I read the line you quoted, I felt that the water cooler was described in such detail because it was such a contrast to the horrible-tasting water at the motel where the jury had previously stayed, and since that had been an issue for the jurors, the author wanted to make sure readers noticed it.
On another topic, I loved that the book was cerebral, as well as emotional. I felt that the author was writing to explore her characters and even say something, and not solely to get me in the feels. I loved that the protagonists had some complications to their characters yet at the same time, were down to earth.
Furthermore, I loved that interpersonal relationships and jury politics were an important part of the story, and that the focus on the romantic relationship wasn’t so tight as to exclude other relationships. The characters had full lives, in other words.
Jennie: That’s a good point. Even if I didn’t always like how it was presented, I liked that we learned about the farmer and his concerns and the woman who was planning her wedding.
Janine: The jury’s conflicts were almost like a puzzle that had to be pieced together by the main characters, or a maze they must navigate in order to grow and get their ultimate reward. I found that very satisfying. I so appreciate the competency of Seidel’s characters, and this challenge highlighted it.
Jennie: It occurs to me that I might have viewed some of the negatives of the book differently if it weren’t marketed as a romance. For better or for worse, I have certain expectations of a romance that I don’t of general fiction. In a romance I would expect the second chance portion of the romance to occur when the h/h were a bit older. In a romance I would expect the trial to have a tidier arc. Maybe these things would have bothered me regardless, but I do think part of my issue has to do with the story defying genre expectations (but for me not in a good way).
Janine: My familiarity with Seidel’s oeuvre made me expect a novel that some of today’s readers might categorize as general fiction, so I didn’t have that issue. I wonder whether a book like this will appeal to today’s readers of contemporary romance, or if it just too different from the flashier books that have become genre staples since Fifty Shades?
The genre-defying differences you mentioned weren’t my favorite aspects of the book but didn’t bother much, either. And there were other ways in which the book defied genre trends that I really appreciated, like the subtlety and nuance I mentioned before, or the fact that Caitlin cared about how Seth treated others, and not just herself. How many books have we read in which the hero is an asshole to everyone but the heroine, and his treatment of her somehow makes that acceptable? Here Caitlin needed to see Seth’s growth reflected in how he treated other people, and I loved that.
Jennie: That’s also a good point. I thought Caitlin’s disappointment with Seth’s shortcomings was well-done. The only issue I had was that it highlighted that Seth was a man-child. He needed to do better to be worthy of Caitlin. That in and of itself isn’t an unusual theme in romance. But Seth’s particular shortcomings – immaturity, self-centeredness, a general kind of dumb jock air – weren’t as romantic to me as the hero who is an asshole to everyone but the heroine (assuming the latter also reforms, of course).
Janine: I felt that Seth overcame most of those shortcomings as the book progressed, though he did mismanage his relationship with Caitlin during the black moment.
I agree that the hero who is an asshole to everyone but the heroine is a more romantic figure than Seth. But those heroes are so hung up on their heroines that if those heroines were to die, they would turn into psychopaths or go on killing sprees. However romantic it is to have that kind of love and loyalty, it also really troubles me. Seth takes a little too long to mature, but I appreciate that he’s down to earth and isn’t in that vein.
What is your grade for The Fourth Summer, Jennie?
Jennie: The stereotyping, more than anything, probably brought my grade down the most. I found it off-putting and unnecessary. My grade for The Fourth Summer is a C.
Janine: That bothered me too. On the other hand, I was much more absorbed by the book than you, and I liked Caitlin a lot. And there things I have missed about Seidel’s writing that were present here, such as the lovely use of romantic and sexual tension where a lot of books would have just given us more sex scenes. I could see myself rereading this book, so despite its flaws, it earns a B/B+ from me.