For the fact of a single rare bird, the island of By-the-Sea, off the coast of New England, has become something of a tourist trap. The bird, known as Annabelle’s Woodpecker, is the only one of its kind, though not for the reasons you might expect: generations ago, a girl from a magical family transformed into a bird––and she’s been taking to the sky ever since.
Such is the draw of Katrina Leno’s quietly witchy novel Summer of Salt, a YA set in a world that is entirely ordinary, save for the hushed talents of one eccentric brood. The Fernwehs have resided on By-the-Sea for as long as anyone can remember, each woman in the family born with a single gift: for Mary, a boisterous 17-year old eager to escape, flight. For Penny, her mother, potions. For Georgina, Mary’s sister, and our lead, nothing…as of yet.
With a plot that seems to recede in favor of atmosphere, magic that resists explanation, and a main character facing a simmering identity crisis, the book’s first act suggests a somber coming-of-age story. That impression, though, is clumsily thwarted by the late entrance of a plot catalyst, 100 pages into this 250-page book.
After that, the remainder of Summer of Salt struggles to get a grip on the reins of this character-drama-but-mystery-but-magic-but-thriller beast, to the point where each attempt at stakes feels like a knock to the funny bone: at one point, a massive torrent of rain floods the entire island, putting the first stories of most buildings underwater, but the damage is an afterthought, snappily resolved in mention only at the very end. By the bare facts of the situation in the face of the conflict introduced at the end of Act I, everything is at stake, but Leno’s writing never truly manages to make it feel that way.
It’s first and foremost an issue of timing: committing so late to a crime and subsequent mystery dooms any hope of buildup and makes the sudden story turn feel jarring. But more than that, I think, the tonal discord of the book, post-plot twist, is born of a refusal to commit.
Leno sets the stage for a quiet contemporary whose stakes are purely internal. The first act of this story proceeds on as prepared, but when the mystery comes into play, Leno tries to wrangle the heightened circumstances without the proper attention to atmosphere. As our characters hunt for answers, it feels both too casual and too grave, the reading experience interrupted by uncertainty about where we stand: is this life threatening? Is it not? Is the suspicion in the air serious? Is it not? Are we supposed to be afraid right now? Is this vital? Is this trivial? Are we supposed to think someone can die in the world of this book, or is that a distant impossibility? Answer these questions haphazardly, as Leno does, and you will have a book with an identity crisis––nevermind its possibly squib heroine.
Interestingly, I keep finding amorphous boundaries of this stripe to be a problem in the reading experiences of other magical, normal-world-but-not young adult novels of recent years. Lana Popović’s Wicked Like a Wildfire struggles to straddle the mundane and the mystical in much the same way, and Leslye Walton’s The Price Guide to the Occult shares Summer of Salt’s inability to prevent the flashier, deadlier variety of its otherwise small magic from feeling out of place against its sleepy small-town backdrop.
I’d argue that the Achilles’ heel in all these situations is an attempt to have it all: the intimacy of a contemporary with the whimsy of a work of fabulism with the suspense of a mystery with a high octane final confrontation worthy of both a thriller and an outright work of fantasy. Chase all these rabbits at once, however, and they’re bound to evade you.
Moreover, it certainly doesn’t help that Leno’s attempt to show the ostracism the Fernwehs face in the aftermath is rather halfhearted. It exists here in an almost compulsory way, and exclusively in nameless passers-by. We are told that of course the Fernwehs––women, and magic users to boot––are held in suspicion, but it never goes any deeper than that, and, of course, disappears when the book wants it to. The concept is covered, but gets little else, which is odd, considering how crucially it comes into play in a reveal that happens near the end. By-the-Sea’s purported quiet disdain for its resident witches is even hammered in to the text during Georgina’s big moment of apotheosis, but, again, like in The Price Guide to the Occult, where, exactly, is it?
Summer of Salt, despite these missteps, might have found stable footing in a cast of compelling characters, but these, too, are lost in the fumbling execution.
As far as character goes, there’s certainly a dearth of nuance in Georgina, but the absence is most dearly felt in the characters around her. Harrison, a bird enthusiast who comes to By-the-Sea for a glimpse at Annabelle’s Woodpecker, and his mostly bird-apathetic sister, Prudence, are rendered in flat, uncomplicated terms. Elvira, Georgina’s best friend, has little to her name besides a typical goth aesthetic and the corresponding snark. Mary, Georgina’s sister, has the most potential of the ensemble, with a disposition that seems poised to chafe against the mores of a small town like By-the-Sea, but with that element neglected, the possible tension the book could draw from her is directionless.
The tension we get is instead inorganic; externally imposed. Even the traditional assailant reveal feels like an arrangement made from the outside of the story, rather than a development from within. In Summer of Salt, things don’t happen between the important characters, but to them. The result is arbitrary, unspooled, and torn between possible executions of its premise––in a book that, entirely unsure of what it wants to do, is as changeable as the tides.