(Please note, this review is for the novella Last Summer at Mars Hill, not the collection of the same name.)
If there is an earmark to Elizabeth Hand’s career, it is her willingness, no, willful intention to focus on people having less-than-standard lives and upbringings. Step-children to the incestuous, nerds to the counter-culture living at the margins of society, Hand’s stories tell of social outcasts of all degrees. The realism of the portrayal of these people’s thoughts and emotions foremost in the narrative, it’s through subtle means she slips in a bit of the fantastic or science fiction to complement the atypical character arcs. 1994’s Last Summer at Mars Hill is precisely this kind of story.
The novella is a well-crafted story about two young people dealing with their parent’s health problems during a summer holiday in Maine. Not horror or science fiction, it is paranormal fantasy (sparingly used) which touches upon terminal illness in poignant fashion. Moony and Jason are atypical eighteen year olds in the last years of the 20th century. Their hippy parents still living according to the quirky values of the counter-culture movement, Moony’s mother Ariel practices mysticism, tarot cards and the like, while Jason’s father, Martin, is a gay artist whose partner recently died of AIDS. Their life possessing niches and facets that the majority of teens their age do not due to their parents’ esoteric worldviews, Moony and Jason are mature beyond their years yet remain part of the idiosyncratic lifestyle of their parents. Part of the lifestyle is a yearly summer retreat to Mars Hill—a gathering of new age mystics and fellow spiritualists who believe the coastal town in Maine is inhabited by powers beyond description. The story opens at the beginning of one such summer, the last summer before Moony and Jason will head off to university, and Moony’s discovery her mother has breast cancer.
Through the practiced wisdom of Hand’s quality prose, readers learn the details of the health problems Ariel has been hiding from her daughter. Martin likewise facing severe health issues, though openly, Jason and Moony commiserate with one another as each of their parents takes a different approach to dealing with the future. Ariel’s approach is to dig deeper into mysticism and herbalism. Abandoning doctor’s treatment and medicine, she seeks cures amongst her friends, in the futurity of cards, and hoping for relief from Them, the supernatural beings said to inhabit the town. Martin’s a health problem without hope for a cure, the man is more open, allowing him a larger space for honesty in his relationships. But the story is about the teens, and it is through their eyes that readers feel the emotions and coming to terms with reality that go hand in hand with aging parents and health problems. The end of their story touching, Hand splashes on just enough of the fantastic to leave the skin tingling.
In the end, Last Summer at Mars Hill is a finely written novella that cleaves closer to realism than the fantastic, yet remains dependent on it. For anyone looking for a personal story of teens growing up in wholly atypical circumstances but still relatable at an emotional level, this is a story for them. Hand’s prose equally strong, it’s also possible to be read and enjoyed for style alone.