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It’s not Aimee Agresti’s fault that her newest novel, which revolves around a summer theater’s season producing three Shakespeare plays, is being released into a world where a pandemic is shuttering live theater venues across the globe. But it’s impossible to read her new novel, The Summer Set, without thinking about all the productions we’ll be missing in the coming months—like, say, at Olney Theatre Center, where Agresti volunteered in high school. Because of its subject, The Summer Set revolves around crowds, backstage whispers, kisses snuck behind closed doors, hand holding, touching, and, of course, the collective experience of live theater. It’s both an escapist read that immerses us in a world that now feels absolutely unrealistic, and a painful one that reminds us of what exactly we’re missing out on. Whether you have fun might depend on your temperament, or how well you’re able to embrace a character very different from yourself.
In The Summer Set, actress Charlie Savoy—almost 40, exiled from the theater and film worlds where she once garnered great acclaim, and directionless—is mandated by a court order to do community service at a theater in the Berkshires where, because this is the kind of novel that would have been a beach read during a different summer, her ex Nicholas Blunt is the creative director. (How this is service to the community of Boston, where she drove into the harbor and was sent to court, is not explained. Accepting that it does not matter is key to embracing the book for what it is.) Obviously, their creative and romantic spark is still there. And love is in the air at the Chamberlain Summer Theater for nearly everyone, including the dozens of apprentices who have been selected from the nation’s top drama schools to help run the Chamberlain’s productions of Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest. But even though the Chamberlain is playing the hits, it’s in dire straits financially; hijinks ensue as the gang attempts to save it. Disaster strikes in a few different ways. The ghost light goes out. Mild fraud is committed (and unacknowledged) in service of a happy ending.
The Summer Set is dizzying, fun, and funny. Some turns of phrase are unique enough to make you pause, and, if you decide to go with the book’s tone, make you laugh out loud, like “Her mind whipped through her highlight/lowlight reel in flashes like one of those photo montages your phone automatically makes.” The apprentices travel to New York City to see “the next Hamilton,” a musical about Abigail Adams called—wait for it—Abby’s Road. There seems to be a snipe at Charlize Theron’s Oscar for Monster all these years later (a character says of Savoy’s rival’s acclaimed movie: “It’s fine to make a pretty girl ugly if the story is a good one, but there was nothin’ else going on. An empty ploy to get awards”). At the end, a cast of Shakespearean luminaries, including Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Idris Elba, and Hugh Grant show up to the Chamberlain as a favor to Charlie’s famous mother, because why not?
The Summer Set isn’t a replacement for an inventive, invigorating live staging of Shakespeare. It is, however, an interesting, amusing quarantine read, if you can manage not to think too hard about references to “antidepressant abuse” or get caught up pondering a world where you could call an ambulance for a cheek gash without worrying about infection, using precious medical resources, or the bill. The book has a lovely amount of unforced diversity: The race of the film heartthrob, whose name has tickets flying out of the box office, is indicated when we learn, offhandedly, that he made his film debut as Denzel Washington’s son; Charlie’s friend Marlena is trans, and gets a happy ending along with everyone else; so many characters are gay that there are many gay best friends, but no one is reduced to the trope. Most importantly, the main romance is tense and compelling. The Summer Set might be able to transport you out of your home for a while. As is the cliche of the moment, we need that now more than ever.