Books

The Spirit Is Weak in 'The Gypsy Moth Summer'

Whereas many readers will savor the natural fecundity, The Gypsy Moth Summer struggles in almost every other aspect.

The Gypsy Moth Summer
Julia Fierro

St. Martin's Press

Jun 2018 (reprint)

Other

Julia Fierro's novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, is a melancholic family saga. Set on a fictional version of Avalon Island, off the East Coast of North America, the novel follows six interconnected characters as they struggle to define their role in the tight-knit and affluent community. In addition to familial expectations, each character must contend with the unyielding social norms associated with race, gender, class, and age. Fierro clearly understands how these cultural conditions inform her characters' development, yet she fails to complicate their identities beyond wanton stereotypes. The Gypsy Moth Summer shines in its beatific naturalism but it fails to complicate the individual.

The novel unfolds during the summer of 1992 and Avalon Island is plagued with gypsy moths. The infestation is not nearly as disastrous, however, as the community's conservative and bigoted perspective on politics, class, and environmentalism. The Gypsy Moth Summer's strength is found in Fierro's critique of intolerance and myopic thinking. Specifically, the Grudder Aviation factory is Avalon Island's central employment hub and the renowned builder of warplanes. The factory is slowly poisoning Avalon Island's residents but maintains its operations, thereby prioritizing capitalism. Fierro is equally censorious of the residents' inability to fathom the mass destruction caused by the manufacture of warplanes because the realization threatens their comfort and luxury. After all, Avalon Island residents rely on "the fighting machines that kept the country safe, and, the coffers full" (294). Essentially their ignorance is commonplace and self-serving.

The Gypsy Moth Summer is primarily fiction but Fierro includes fascinating natural histories throughout. Each of the novel's parts are preceded by a description of the gypsy moth's life cycle. These additions provide an illuminating understanding of the insect. More so, Fierro creates vibrant imagery when she methodically chronicles Avalon Island's trees and landscapes. Yet she is unsatisfied with simple description; she also includes fascinating cultural histories on pertinent flora. For example, the character Jules describes the Ancient Egyptian appreciation for the lotus: "the white lotus — Nymphaea lotus — blooms at night. So it was used in lunar celebrations. And there was also the Nymphaea caerulea. The blue lotus.. .with a gorgeous hot-orange center... a symbol for the sun in a ton of Egyptian art" (119). The inclusion of the natural histories makes The Gypsy Moth Summer a memorable read.

Yet the novel's focus on naturalism eclipses the storytelling and character development. Fierro adroitly balances the narratives for multiple characters but when they all converge toward the end, the plot becomes convoluted. The novel's climax is hurried, muddied, and the fate of several characters is predictable. Many plot points are undeveloped or neglected. Dom, the younger brother of Maddie LaRosa, represses his homosexuality. A seemingly crucial character component, his sexual identity is not revisited in the novel's second half nor does it impact the plot. Similarly, Leslie Day Marshall, the daughter of Avalon Island's most prominent family, is quietly orchestrating a revenge plot against Grudder for causing her infertility. Her scheme is to hire local boys to graffiti the town with tags reading "Grudder kills" or "Grudder is cancer" (15). This is not revenge, it's childish shenanigans. Readers are left wondering why these points are even included.

The portrayal of teenage girls is problematic as each character is an unadulterated stereotype. Bitsy and her crew are archetypal mean girls: self-involved, bullying, and narcissistic. They are vapid and their character development stutters but never progresses. Penny is the predictable, mortally sick girl who just wants to live a normal teenage life before she dies. She and her illness are overused literary tropes -- the real tragedy. Finally, there's Maddie. Of all the teen girls, she is the most developed and demonstrates a semblance of nuance. She, however, lacks self-worth and agency since all her actions are determined by male characters. At one point she starts keeping a journal because "it was B's idea that I start writing to you" (262). B is her boyfriend Brookes. Her inability to think or advocate for herself is frustrating.

The portrayal of race is equally problematic. Jules, the only African-American character, is overly sexualized throughout The Gypsy Moth Summer. The author wastes too many words describing his erections and body. The lurid details evoke hypersexualization of the black body while putting his intellect and talents in the background. At one point, Jules spots a neighbor's blackface jockey lawn ornament, a symbol of forced subservience during the Jim Crow era. Jules does little to problematize the statue. Instead, he reinforces the degrading symbol when he considers the whiteness of his neighbors in contrast to the "browness of the help" (93). Then he chastises himself for being "a self-righteous prick... knowing they'd chosen to be here, just like he had" (93). "They" being the people of color who are struggling in positions of servitude. Fierro misses an opportunity to unpack the intersection of class and race juxtaposed to overarching racialized historical narratives.

Fierro tries to complicate race, class, and gender, but the manner in which she approaches these topics is inattentive. As a maddening and anti-intellectual subtext, Fierro relies on Oprah Winfrey to deliver the novel's progressivism. When Maddie is feeling downtrodden, her grandmother Victoria reminds her to recite affirmations learned from the TV host. Later, Maddie is brought to tears when Oprah confronts a group of skinheads on her program. Maddie fails to recognize Avalon Island's owns racial turbulence in the show's narrative so the bumbling parallel fails. Especially for Victoria, the Oprah effect was revelatory: "after each Oprah episode, [Victoria] was depleted. To have eighty years of preconceived notions shattered, and then rearranged, in just forty minutes" (256). Apparently, the women in this novel are so sheltered and uncritical, it just takes one episode of Oprah to change their standpoints.

Fierro's attempt at acknowledging race, gender, and class flounders. The characters' spiritlessness ultimately undermines the entirety of The Gypsy Moth Summer. Whereas many readers will savor the natural fecundity, The Gypsy Moth Summer struggles in almost every other aspect.

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