Henry James opens his 1881 novel, The Portrait Of A Lady, with a paean to an English ritual: “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea." Replace tea with reading, and the sentiment still rings true for many of us, for whom an afternoon spent in the company of books, especially during the blazing summer months, is perhaps the next best thing to a post-prandial nap.

Summer is the season of longings. The heat fills people with a desire to get away from their familiar bearings, venture in new directions, or let their hearts run amok. No wonder the season has inspired a dazzling array of classics, from romances to travelogues to stories of self-discovery, each opening a window to a brave new world.

Old love, new love

Few novels revel in the hypnotic trance of summer days as André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, which led to Luca Guadagnino’s award-winning film adaptation, does. Set in Italy, this is a classic coming-of-age tale told through the voice of its teenage protagonist, Elio. His heart torn between conflicting desires for his beautiful neighbour Marzia and Oliver (the handsome guest at his parents’ country retreat), Elio discovers love as well as betrayal in that fateful summer of 1983. Aciman is a master at unpacking the significance of throwaway moments, letting the reader savour the epiphanies the plot brings forth.

Thwarted romance, along with much else, is the driving force behind My Jane Austen Summer, the debut novel by Cindy Jones. Lily Berry, the heroine of this revisiting of Mansfield Park, has recently lost her mother to cancer, her boyfriend Martin because of her alleged neediness, and her job for reading Jane Austen at work. When Lily’s father decides to marry his “new" girlfriend within weeks of her mother’s demise, she decides to board a plane to England to attend a literature festival to celebrate Austen. A love triangle, an attractive deacon preparing to enter the Anglican order, and a secret come to haunt Lily that summer. Need we say more?

If a love story with a touch of mystery is your idea of a summer chiller, consider picking up Paper Towns by John Green. Although known for his best-selling young-adult novels, Green is, like any accomplished writer, a treat for readers of all ages. In this gripping novel, which also led to a movie in 2015, young Quentin “Q" Jacobsen sets off to find his childhood sweetheart, Margot Roth Spiegelman, who goes missing shortly after seeking his help to carry out a personal mission. Heartbreak and hard truths make this quite a page-turner.

Season of soul-searching

The need to get away, to the hills or other tropical climes, is a specifically summery itch. In literature, this journey from the home to the world often describes an arc of self-discovery, such as in Anita Desai’s early novel, Where Shall We Go This Summer. In this story, a sensitive young wife has a breakdown one summer, recoiling from her loving husband. With two of her children in tow, and heavily pregnant with a fifth, she returns to her childhood home, lying decrepit, on one of the islands near Mumbai. The truths about herself that she stumbles upon change the dynamics of her marriage and redefine her identity.

Uneasy realities about her family also provoke the unnamed narrator of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Booker-winning novel Heat And Dust to return to India to look into the past of her step-grandmother, Olivia. In the 1920s, Olivia was stationed in British India, longing for excitement and adventure amidst the heat and dust. Her wishes were granted, rather unfortunately, through an unwanted pregnancy after she was seduced by a nawab. As the narrator returns to trace the story behind the scandal of that long-past summer, her life too becomes embroiled in misadventures.

Summertime, by J.M. Coetzee, almost mockingly alludes to the immortal aria from George Gershwin’s 1935 opera, Porgy And Bess. But Coetzee’s semi-autobiographical novel is far from the world conjured in that song. In this self-portrait, part of a trilogy that includes Boyhood and Youth, Coetzee looks back on his own life in the summer of 1970 in South Africa, when the “livin", to borrow a word from Gershwin’s song, certainly wasn’t easy. Mediated through the voice of a biographer who is piecing together the life of a man called “John Coetzee", this is a self-aware book about what it means to live the writer’s life.

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