In her debut novel, The Summer We Fell Apart, author Robin Antalek explores the complexity of family ties in an unflinching and realistic manner, without a hint of sentimentality. Summer tells the tale of the four Haas siblings, raised in a disordered and largely unsupervised environment by a one-hit-wonder playwright father with a serious fidelity problem and a flaky actress mother. As adults they are scattered, but they share the common bond of a chaotic childhood—which affects them all in different ways.
Each of the Haas siblings’ stories is told in separate sections of the book over more than a decade, with a defining moment being the death of their not-so-beloved father. The four are each a definite type, but Antalek’s unflinchingly human portrayal of the siblings helps make up for the stereotyping.
Kate is the archetypal oldest child. Forced to care for her neglected younger siblings as a child, she remains the responsible one as an adult, living a type-A lawyer’s workaholic existence while eschewing a real emotional life. It is only when a tale of love thwarted in her younger years is revealed that her more human side emerges.
Finn is the disturbed and destructive son. A heavy drinker since adolescence, his life is a shambles and his body falling apart in adulthood. It may be Kate who can save him—or he may be beyond saving.
George is a schoolteacher, hungry for the love he didn’t receive as a child. It could be the father of one of his students who can give him just that—as long as George can really let him in.
And finally there is Amy—the baby, the dreamy and artistic child, the one her mother can turn to when her own life is falling apart. Amy yearns for stability as a child, and she seems to achieve that more than any other Haas sibling as an adult.
Antalek captures the love-hate sibling dynamic perfectly in this absorbing novel, and she conveys an understanding that, while family is vital, you can’t ever truly expect them to be what you want them to be.
Rebecca Stropoli writes from Brooklyn, New York.