Most summers have a book of the summer, though not all do. We had Gone Girl in 2012, but I’m not convinced 2013 had a book of the summer. It’s hard to say why it happens and why it doesn’t. Some novels, when read in hot weather, just seem to melt and run together with their surroundings, to the point where afterward one can never quite think of that summer without thinking of that story, and vice versa.
We rarely see them coming, though after the fact it seems obvious. Of course the summer of 1991 would go for American Psycho, with its savage immolation of 1980s mores. Likewise it seems inevitable now that in 2002, the summer Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped, we should have flocked en masse to the icy brilliance of The Lovely Bones. But at the time, no one knew. If books of the summer have something in common, it’s that they tend to break rules: people pick them up because they can’t quite believe somebody actually wrote that and got away with it. Lolita (1958) rendered skeezy pedophilia as high art. John Updike’s Couples (1968) did the same with suburban adultery. Love Story: the girl dies. The Lovely Bones: the girl dies in the first paragraph. The Name of the Rose: OMG, I can’t believe how much medieval scholarship is in this book.
It’s impossible to predict it in advance, though that’s what we’re about to try to do, because the book of the summer is a surprise by definition. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out in July 2007 and sold through the roof, but it wasn’t the book of the summer because everybody saw it coming. What really makes a book of the summer is when we surprise ourselves. It’s not just about being fascinated by a book. It’s about being fascinated by the fact that we’re fascinated.
The One Plus One
Pros: Single mom plus nerdy millionaire equals unlikely romance. And there’s a road trip!
Cons: Very few killer sharks.
All the Light We Cannot See
Pros: Blind daughter of a locksmith meets reluctant Nazi engineering whiz! What more do you want?
Cons: Complex, lyrical historical fiction may not have the necessary mass appeal.
Pros: Small-town girls hit by mystery syndrome. Tense, erotically fraught, has Gillian Flynn blurb.
Cons: Much adolescent angst. Are the stakes high enough?
We Were Liars
Pros: Rich people on an island; sharp, funny-sad writing; a head-snapping fourthquarter reveal.
Cons: It’s a YA novel, so some adults might pass.
Pros: Keen psychological insight, irrepressible humor and a supernatural twist: a woman can call her husband in the past.
Cons: Relative lack of violence, perverse sex.
Pros: Child kidnapping victim grows up to become ass-kicking vigilante looking for other missing children. Boom.
Cons: A thriller but maybe not a rule breaker.
Pros: Set in lovely, lush Victorian London. Plus: vampires, vampires, vampires.
Cons: Owen’s pacing is slow and artful—maybe too slow for some.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Pros: Genius techno-thriller à la Neal Stephenson, powered by social-media info-conspiracy à la Dave Eggers.
Cons: Low-key romance may not play to all quadrants.
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