The Gypsy Moth Summer: A Novel by Julia Fierro

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“He’d wanted to hate Avalon, to feel the same disgust he’d reserved for her parents, who lived as if Jules were dead and her children never born.”

The islanders can hear the feeding mouths of the voracious gypsy moth caterpillars that have invaded Avalon Island. Their bodies, and excrement covering their clothing, the grounds, and the people are left to wonder if the insects will eat every bit of vegetation on the island, leaving nothing behind but skeleton trees and dead plants?  Or is it more likely the people themselves will devour each other with their racism and superiority?

When Lesile Day Marshall, daughter of one of the most prominent family’s who own a home known as ‘The Castle’ returns to the island with her  husband Jules, an African American botanist and their bi-racial children the people are turned upside down. Everyone is curious, and not all are open or accepting of their marriage. The bigotry on the island is both loud and quiet, despite the resentment Jules feels, the island’s native species of plants has him mesmerized. He and Lesile may well be King and Queen of the castle now, and to hell with the darlings of Avalon. Their son, Brooks has fallen hard for Maddie Pencott LaRosa,  whose stuck between two worlds from birth. Her mother, daughter to the Colonel that fathered Grudder Aviation and his wife Veronica, married a man from the working class side of the island. Maddie’s father has held tight to the grit of his origins, Veronica and the Colonel have kept their distance from their disgraced daughter and her family but as the Colonel begins to lose his mind, Veronica seems to find her own. With the arrival of Jules, Veronica’s true self seems to be splitting out of her body, much like the caterpillars covering and devouring the island.  She has always been just like the women of island and yet by falling in love with her granddaughter, her  clouded perception of the world is clearing. Watching as Maddie has trysts with Brooks, their forbidden love allows Veronica to long for life again, despite the sickness inside of her. She finds herself charmed, and drawn to Jules and his passion for plants. That he is witness to her husband’s vulnerability bonds the two, but is it dangerous for Jules and his family to let down their guard, giving the islanders benefit of the doubt?

Graffti covers war memorials alerting people that ‘Grudder Kills’, and the cancer that it spreads is evident in the sickness that tears through the island’s residents, including young Penny, Maddie’s friend. Too, something is causing barren wombs in women. This is a military island, Grudder is an aviation company that for generations has been feeding the war effort. The island is an Eden for the wealthy whites and a hell for the workers that support their riches. There is animosity beneath the surface, everything has come to a head as Veronica’s husband, The Colonel is losing his mind to dementia and truly is no longer fit to run their company. She takes fate into her hands, with the strict, controlling man now as confused and lost as a weepy child Veronica feels a strength she never knew existed inside of her. It’s not too late to set things right for her family, before exiting the earth. A pity she has just now begun to live, no longer under the watchful controlling eye of her husband.

Brooks is a city boy and hasn’t even seen so much stardust. He is street wise and yet has a tender gentleness that the rough boys Maddie dates lack, as fed by pornographic treatment of women as they are. Their forbidden love must be hidden from her father, and she even fears telling her friends. Lesile, Brooks mother, encourages her son to bring the aggressive kids they first encountered to their grounds to party. Jules is less enthusiastic about the arrangement, and knows because of his skin color that they must remain far more distrustful and vigilant yet just what will happen when he lets his guard down? Maddie’s brother Dom is confused sexually, has been bullied to the point of breaking and wants to prove himself worthy of the family name. As his grandfather says “Sometimes, you’re the mouth. Sometimes, you’re the meal.” With that on his mind, he will become the protector of his family, but what does it mean for Maddie and Brooks love affair?

There are a lot of characters in this story, and not all of them are likable. The author has sent a plague of moths unto the people, who are already plagued by their narrow minds and greed. People are plotting, and one character that has ‘lost his marbles’ is polluting an already confused mind with his own poisonous nature. Is it a surprise when he has already polluted the island  and it’s residents with toxins from his company? They are hungry, brutal, drugged out, sexed up, vengeful, manipulative… I can’t think of anything Fierro’s characters aren’t struggling through. Family strife, racism, disease, dementia… did I mention racism. It is as smeared throughout the novel as the caterpillars guts. Who knew a lawn jockey statue could so disturb? Well, who didn’t?  There is a lot of stereo-typical behavior, but one has to ask how does something become stereo-typical? It’s a hell of a story, and a part of me thinks the racism serves its purpose and another part of me thinks it was laid on a bit too thick. No one can write about racism with a light pen, and Fierro doesn’t.

With the arrival of Lesile and her family, everything ugly about the people of Avalon grows into a beast. Lesile has her own agenda and Jules can’t resist his wife’s desires and needs but it may cost his family more than he ever imagined. As far as character’s go, his relationship and conversations with his son were moments I enjoyed. He adores his wife, and their passion is fiery. He is an intelligent, loving family man but should he have so much faith in Leslie, rather than wonder at her reasons for returning to the very place she turned her back on? Veronica and Maddie’s growing bond reveals who Veronica should have been, before wealth  and society’s expectations corrupted  her. How she feels about men, after being with the Colonel for so long is a hell of a reason to be so bitter now, ” I’m sorry, my dad’s always telling me to think before I speak.” “Yes, “Veronica said. That sounds just like the kind of advice men like to give women. Especially young women.”  Don’t say or think anything important, edit yourself, keep yourself in check, be a good little lady- that sort of sexism is rampant in all social classes. Is there a lick of hope for any of these seemingly doomed characters? Will anyone escape being eaten?  I think this novel is engaging, but at the same time it is a tough read. Times are ugly, that it’s set in the 90’s doesn’t make the bigotry any easier to take. Was it really this bad? I don’t know, open your eyes today and ask that same question.

Publication Date: June 6, 2017

St. Martin’s Press

 

 

 

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