Review: Every Other Weekend
By Zulema Renee Summerfield (Little, Brown and Company, 2018)
Every Other Weekend is an exquisite rendering of childhood heartache, filtered through pre-adolescent Nenny. Nenny's a middle-child daughter sandwiched between elder brother Bubbles and little brother Tiny. Already anxious, growing up in 1980s suburban Los Angeles where alienation is an unavoidable lifestyle, Nenny navigates Catholic grammar school and her parents' divorce. This fragmented world is crafted with vivid chapter-vignettes, some of which are named for Nenny's anxieties: "Fear #22: The Russians"; "Fear # 37: Earthquake"; "Fear # 7: Home Invasion"; “Fear #1: Disappeared”. Spoiler alert: at least one of these fears will directly drive the plot.
Nenny moves reluctantly into a step-family when her mother marries Robert, someone she knows from working together at the hospital. Robert is a solid provider with a difficult past. "Vietnam sits at every meal, jungle-breathed and bleary-eyed, sprawled across their plates. Vietnam is a hungry dog shivering at the foot of the bed. Vietnam is the constant thing between them. Vietnam, ugly and childish and hiding and damned. It slithers the hallways and skulks the stairs. Vietnam lurks in every room, laughing in the dark..."
Robert's children are teenaged Kat (a distant big sister), and Charles (who is Nenny's age but withdrawn into his own world). Kat and Charles' mom, Windsor, complicates the plot in unexpected ways. In Nenny's world, even the dog has problems (kudos to the author for not killing the family dog!) One strength is Summerfield's tone, luscious snippets of humor mixed with existential crisis, all filtered through Nenny's preoccupations. An after-class conversation with Sister Mary tilts Nenny's perceptions of God, which might prove enough of a lifesaver for Nenny to ride out the storms of her complex blended family and hostile suburban milieu. In rare mother-daughter moments, bonding happens where least expected. "Mom lets Nenny pick out their machine, then dumps the clothes in and sprinkles in some Tide. Doing laundry at a laundromat lends the chore a kind of magic. The sound of quarters plunking in! There's plastic chairs for while you wait! The machines sound like a hive of bees! You want to know what spoiled is? Spoiled is when your mom takes you, and only you, to a special place like a laundromat and presses two quarters for candy into your hand without being asked."
Nenny glimpses snippets of the broader world while watching television news about Tianamen Square protests and the fall of the Berlin Wall. If there were a sequel of Nenny's teen years, I'd love to read it. Recommended for fans of Janet Fitch and Edan Lepucki, or the 2017 Greta Gerwig film LADY BIRD. Plenty of themes here for book group or writing seminar discussions.