Invincible Summers by Robin Gaines
After returning home from burying her father on Independence Day, ten-year-old Claudia Goodwin watches from the kitchen window as neighbors drag picnic tables and coolers into the middle of the street to celebrate the holiday. How, Claudia wonders, will she fit into this new fatherless world with the old one still going on around her?
Invincible Summers follows Claudia through eleven summers, from the age of six through twenty-three, as she adjusts with varying degrees of success to what it means to be a daughter, a sister, friend, and lover in a world of loss, betrayal and bad judgment.
Set in a middle class suburb outside of Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, the novel shows Claudia’s pursuit to find a purpose as she struggles with feelings of rootlessness in a world torn apart by assassinations, riots, and the Vietnam War. It is a coming-of-age story of one woman’s journey through the guilt and responsibility she feels for her father’s death, her mother’s career-altering disfiguration, and her brother’s downslide into drugs.
Invincible Summers weaves a tale about grief and forgiveness and the indelible heartbreak of all the things left unsaid.
Robin Gaines is the author of the novel-in-stories, Invincible Summers, forthcoming in May 2016 from ELJ Publications. Her short stories and essays can be found in Slice, Crack the Spine, Spindrift, Oasis: A Literary Magazine, Willard & Maple, The Homestead Review, Current Magazine, and Porcupine Literary Arts Magazine.
Invincible Summers was a semi-finalist for The Iowa Short Fiction & John Simmons Short Fiction Award for 2014. She received her MA in journalism from Michigan State University and worked as a research intern at Rolling Stone while freelancing for various music publications. Robin’s interviewed or reviewed acts as diverse as Peter, Paul and Mary to Alice in Chains. Music, or the business of music, finds its way into much of her fiction.
She tries to blog twice a month here about all things literary, but the subject matter usually veers off course into the perils and joys of being human.
Currently, Robin is working on another novel that keeps her up most nights thinking about its characters. She is a member of the Detroit Working Writers and the Metro Detroit Book & Author Society. Born in Detroit, she lives half the year outside of Ann Arbor and the other half on a lake in Petoskey, Michigan. You can find Robin on the web here.
Interview with Robin Gaines,
author of INVINCIBLE SUMMERS
Q: The structure of the novel, eleven chapters dedicated to eleven summers in one girl’s life, is a different way of telling the story. How did you decide to write the book this way? And why the summer season only to tell Claudia’s story?
A: Summer is the season of possibilities. There is light and fresh air and a midwesterner’s sense of freedom. Winters in Michigan (where some of the chapters are set) can be brutal and long. Spring doesn’t come until late April—sometimes May. By summer we’re ready to jump out of our skin. Claudia and the other characters are all jumping out of their skin in this book. Although I wrote Invincible Summers long before the movie, “Boyhood,” came out, I was happy to see someone else thought the idea of exploring coming-of-age in a long narrative arc was creatively intriguing.
Q: Invincible Summers takes place in the 1960s and 1970s in a suburb of Detroit and Europe. Why did you choose this time period and those settings?
A: Assassinations, riots, the Vietnam War formed the backdrop and soundtrack to everything going on in our country then. That period was ripe with turmoil and rage, similar to what my characters experience in their own homes. So “place” becomes a character in the book. Add in loss and the sense of uncertainty and the characters start to fight or flee. Claudia fled to Europe with only a backpack and a dream of reinventing herself.
Q: Although Invincible Summers is a novel how autobiographical is Claudia’s story?
A: Like Claudia, I lost my father at the age of ten. That kind of loss stops a childhood in its tracks. For children and teens, the idea of being perceived as different from your peers, (i.e., the death of a parent, a divorce, illness, financial trouble, addictions, abandonment, etc.) takes up space in their heads usually reserved for normal childhood angst. Making the baseball team, getting invited to sleepovers or the prom, seems silly by comparison when you’re a child worrying about adult things already. Children of halted childhoods wear their indelible scars like scarlet letters. The color fades as time goes on, but not the mark.
Q: The bonds of brother and sister, mother and daughter, are central themes in the novel. How do the surviving Goodwins deal with the loss of their husband and father?
A: With varying degrees of success and failure. They don’t have a choice, do they? Enduring the loss of a loved one and the subsequent grief that follows is hard work—like slicing your way through a thick and dangerous jungle. It’s about getting up each day in a new unstable world and putting one foot in front of the other. Each family member goes about this differently: Fiona, the mother, insists on “moving on” by marrying a man for stability. Burke treats his grief and anger with drugs and alcohol. Claudia dreams of escape. All have narrow views of what is possible. Although forgiveness, of each other and themselves, gives the reader hope for the Goodwins.
Q: Miscommunication and lack of communication in the Goodwin family are evident from the first chapter. Was this an intentional theme while writing the book?
A: No. While doing revisions on the manuscript I was surprised at how the subconscious worked in threading the theme through every character in large and small ways. There’s a line in the book, “Silence, I realize now, the deafening clatter of all things unsaid.” Claudia’s father, in “Doublespeak,” interprets the mother’s mumbled answers to Claudia’s observations and questions. After his death, the family’s translator is gone.
Q: Transportation, by automobile, train, ferry, airplane—even jumping out of one—is important to Claudia’s story. Why did you include so many modes in the book?
A: You forgot hitchhiking! It was a popular way to get somewhere in the 1960s and 1970s. People look funny doing it now. Invincible Summers takes the reader on a journey, literally and figuratively, to the transformative moments in Claudia’s life. While some of those moments/scenes take place in or around her childhood home on Vermont Street, many occur during her travels to and from places in Europe. A life can unfold from staring out a train window at the scenery or from the deck of a ferry looking at the sea. Of this, I am certain.
Q: How do ghosts, or the idea of ghosts, help and haunt the characters in Invincible Summers? Do you believe in ghosts?
A: The ghost that is Claudia’s father seems to haunt her—or at least, that’s what she first thinks—but throughout the book he helps her to confront her fears, and he leads her to Elliot. So there’s that! Big Becca has her ghost, as well, although not as fleshed out as Claudia’s. Maybe her ghost is more of an imaginary friend? I do believe in ghosts. The scene where the radio comes on and plays a single song and then goes dark again actually happened to me. It was the last time I felt my father’s presence, nearly thirty plus years ago. Everyone has ghosts. It’s a choice whether one wants to see them or not.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I hope the reader feels empathy for one or more of the characters and enjoys the journey Claudia takes them on. As Louise Gluck writes, in “Nostos,” “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.”
This is the story of Claudia Goodwin. We first find her in the back of her parent’s car with her brother Burke as her parents are heading to a hospital for her mother. Her parents were fighting with her Grandmother when Claudia was trying to help her mother cook. But she accidentally turns the heat up on the food instead of down. The pan explodes in her mother’s face and ends her modeling career. Four years later we find the family at home after a model shoot and Claudia finding her father dead of a heart attack.
We follow Claudia through several more summers as she navigates life. We follow Claudia discovering what she wants to do with her life and how things actually play out. We see how her mother gets on wither step father Roy, how Burke drifts away and finds his way back, and how Claudia does there is always the thought of the loss of her father.
You can’t help but feel for Claudia in Invincible Summers. She loses her father when she is 10 years old and it stays with her throughout her life. Then her mother marries a guy who gets an instant family but you can tell neither are really stellar parents. Poor Burke didn’t really fit in anywhere but you can’t help feeling for him too as Roy clearly doesn’t know what to do with him.
This is a great trip from childhood summers, to the things we all did as teenagers, and into our adult lives. I really liked following along with the different events from history along with Claudia in Detroit and Italy. But in everything that she does, Claudia can’t help but remember that she has lost her father.
This is a great story and one that I recommend you check out. It’s very poignant and shows how different events can stick with us and will shape us.
I received Invincible Summers for free from Blankenship Public Relations in exchange for an honest review.