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Last Summer in Agatha

by Katherine Holubitsky

Every so often while channel surfing I wash up on the shores of Dawson’s Creek, and am momentarily transfixed, not so much by the characters’ uniform beauty but by how incredibly distressed they always are: so young, so affluent, and yet eternally in the midst of some agonizing emotional crisis. They talk and talk and talk, implausibly articulate, passionately earnest, until I shut them all up by turning off the television.

With Last Summer in Agatha (the follow-up to the award-winning Alone at Ninety Foot), Katherine Holubitsky succeeds in depicting the kind of adolescent intensity and myopia that (especially to an adult) can be both bewildering and tedious. Fifteen-year-old Rachel comes to Agatha, a sleepy rural town in southern Alberta, to spend the summer helping out at her aunt and uncle’s veterinary clinic. Right away she meets fellow dishy teens Anna, Scott, and Michael and before you know it the four are as tight as the cast of a TV series. Rachel’s attraction to Michael is immediate and mutual, but the first chapter closes with the portentous words: “It was before I knew how close to the edge he really was.”

Two years earlier Michael’s much-loved brother Nick died in a car crash the night of his high school graduation. As the novel progresses, Michael’s grief, though he tries to keep it bottled up, bursts forth in increasingly violent episodes, mostly precipitated by the abusive goading of high school yahoos Cory and Taylor. When they destroy a go-cart that Nick had built for Michael (and that Michael has just lovingly refurbished), Michael flips out, trashes Taylor’s car and later holes up in a riverside cave (an old childhood haunt) with a stolen shotgun, considering suicide.

This is serious stuff, but it also seems rather stale and familiar (deeply troubled, brooding teen needs rescue from
himself). Perhaps the material might have been elevated if the novel were peopled with unique characters and navigated by a stronger voice. Rachel’s first-person narration is more than competent (and she describes the prairie landscape with spare eloquence) but – as is often the case with first-person narrators – her own personality never really emerges. She is too bland to really make us identify with her, and amazingly passive throughout the story. Instead of propelling the plot, she acts mostly as a witness to the action around her. The other characters are realistic in a generic way, but, again, too thin to forge an emotional bond with the reader: Anna is nice; Scott is, well, nice; and as for Michael, I fear the most
interesting thing about him is that he has a dead brother. And I didn’t care – not nearly as much as I should have.

There is one scene, however, in which Holubitsky successfully transmits a sense of real sadness and loss: Michael and his
friends sit at the old go-cart track, trading childhood stories in which Nick figures prominently. It was the first time in the book I actually started having an emotional reaction to the characters, but even then, the scene feels so engineered (the three worried friends have gone in search of the brooding Michael and found him actually sitting in the go-cart) that it veers dangerously close to sentimentality.

In other places, emotion seems curiously absent: Rachel and Michael’s romance is delivered to the reader pretty much as a fait accompli. Their courtship – if one can use such a word in teen relationships – seems to happen largely off the page. We don’t know they’re an item until Rachel makes a reference to her and Michael making out while watching a video. But elsewhere Rachel comments relatively little on the relationship which, surely for a 15-year-old, would have been a hugely exciting event in her life.

For the most part, Rachel, Anna, and Scott seem to be assembled to observe Michael’s meltdown, and be incredibly loyal and supportive and say things like “Michael was in denial” or “Let it go” or “Some things just hurt too much.” Teenagers really do traffic in such clichés, to be sure, but seeing these things in print is rarely a pleasure.

I get the sense that Holubitsky really does understand teens, and her dialogue has a refreshing humour in places. Her writing itself is vivid, and the story is structured well: she wisely intersperses her crisis scenes with ones of greater normalcy – though a thematically dubious subplot involving the local hermit (who Anna believes is a serial killer) takes a turn a little too close to Scooby-Doo territory.

Reading Last Summer in Agatha reminded me how besotted teenagers are with the dramas of their lives, but rather than making me admire Holubitsky’s realism, it simply made me tired of all the banal emoting.