Book Review: The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro

For now, they are young and beautiful, pure muscle and unblemished skin. They are in love— a faith that makes them tease death. They swing out over the sea cliffs clutching a tire tied to a tree; drop two tabs of acid and swim to the end of the ferry landing and back; drag race down the wrong side of the causeway at two in the morning; fly headfirst toward danger, deaf to their mothers’ warnings— Be careful— all to win a bet. To prove they are what they feel. Immortal.
The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro is a kaleidoscopic tale of the inhabitants of one island during the devastating gypsy moth invasion of 1992. Alternating between narratives of the young and old, Black and white, the rich in East Avalon and the poor in the West, Fierro paints a vivid picture of the struggles felt across every generation of Avalon. Peppered throughout with moth references and entomological insight, the development of the moth mirrors the building tension on the island until it culminates in one explosive finale- like the first flight of the moths.
On an island, time can freeze, but that summer the islanders felt a change coming. East and West agreed: there was a yawning divide between old and young. Yesterday and tomorrow. The new generation of Avalonians worshipped at the altar of MTV; didn’t fear the Bomb; heard the slogan “Be All You Can Be” and thought not of defending his or her country but, instead, imagined their future selves waiting to hatch like the moth eggs tucked in the crook and bend of every tree on the island.
Maddie Pencott LaRosa, recently initiated into the elite group of girls at school, quickly falls victim to the pressure of her peers and the temptations the drugs, drinking, and sex. In an attempt to escape the troubles of her life at home- a depressed mother, abusive father, her childhood best friend’s brain cancer- she loses herself in the vortex of summer. But one evening, everything changes. Maddie begins to learn what real love is and what it costs to maintain it in the isolated despair of Avalon.
How could she tell him the truth? That she was worried her cousins would see them and tattle to her dad, who’d beat her. Because he was a racist. Because we all are, she thought.
At the start of the summer, Leslie Day Marshall returns the island with her husband and two children in tow and she doesn’t bat an eye at the whispers, glances and shuffling of feet as her old friends and neighbors repress their shock- Mr. Marshall is Black. The prodigal daughter of one of Avalon’s most prestigious families, she has returned to fight the establishment of Grudder Aviation for one heartbreaking reason that becomes clear as the story unfolds. This should be cause enough to ruffle the feathers of the Avalon elite, but by flaunting her Black husband she has also forced them to face their ingrained prejudices rooted in the starkly white history of the island.
And she too wanted to believe in a sense of order, divine providence or whatever— a sign— linking the arrival of Leslie Day Marshall’s family and the metamorphosis of the island, overnight, into a nest of ravenous pests.
Julius Marshall has been uprooted from his home, taken from his beloved garden, and replanted among the elitist citizenry of Avalon. Haunted by the voice of his father and his constant preaching on the differences between black and white, Julius struggles with finding a place for himself and for his family. Afraid to reproduce in his son what his father bore into him, Julius focuses on reviving the sprawling garden of their new home- putting his Harvard degree in Landscape Architecture to use and getting lost in his own thoughts.
Should he warn Brooks? He’d leave it be, for now. Last thing he wanted was to become his father, his son’s only inheritance a fear that keeps him from living life, taking risks, seeing the world in all its spectrum, not just black and white. That line from his favorite Baldwin essay was in his head: You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.
Bearing witness to it all is Veronica, Maddie’s grandmother and wife to the former Grudder Aviation president, who remembers Avalon as it once was. Veronica is not without her own secrets, however; her husband’s severe dementia, his emotional and physical abuse and her own failing battle with breast cancer. In an effort to secure her family’s legacy, she collects the young and those not yet beaten down by the island like pawns in a game using each as she sees fit until the shocking conclusion.
The Gypsy Moth Summer is a poignant examination of one communities destruction: by the moths, the pollution of Grudder and its very inhabitants ruthlessly tearing each other down.
Let the men and women of Avalon Island, East and West, play make believe—pretend they control life and death, war and peace, their kings and queens and workers and servants and country, and the warbirds they bring to life with aluminum and steel, baptized by fire. Let them believe—for one last night—they are immortal.
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A review copy was provided by St. Martin’s Press via Netgalley
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