Sue Halpern's eighth book, "Summer Hours at the Robbers Library" (Harper, 2018) is a fast-paced and complex novel about a diverse cast of characters in a small New Hampshire town that is well past its best days. Riverton had been a thriving mill town, employing hundreds and supporting citizens from barbers to doctors, from businessmen to laborers. But those days are long gone, and the main sign of the town's past glory is the library, built as one of the Carnegie libraries in 1912.
Halpern, a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, places the library at the center of the action and skillfully manages what could have been a trite story about a stock group of characters. There's Kit, broken in heart and spirit by a marriage that ends in disaster who moves to Riverton after answering a random ad for a librarian; there's Sunny, the "no-schooled" pre-adolescent child of hippies who is assigned to the library by a judge in Kid's Court for stealing a Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary because all the words that are in all the books are in the dictionary; there's Rusty, the failed Wall Street short-seller who arrives in Riverton to search for a hoped-for windfall from a bank deposit made by his mother in 1950; and there are many minor characters from the 'hearts as good as gold' four old guys who visit the library every morning to the immigrant Patels who run the Tip Top Motel.
The story winds back and forth in time for each of the main characters. While the action in the present unfolds at the library, Halpern uses numerous flashbacks to provide the backstory for Kit's marriage and subsequent therapy, for Sunny's family's nomadic existence off the grid, and for Rusty's crash and burn outcome in the Great Recession. Halpern's finesse as a storyteller allows the reader to easily oscillate back and forth from the present to the past while maintaining the novel's momentum. The story lines are believable, and over the course of the book, the reader comes to care deeply about all three of the main characters and the rest of the folks in Riverton. In order to avoid having to issue a "spoiler alert," be assured that the book ends on a hopeful and positive note.
Halpern labels the six sections of the book The Marriage Story I through VI, and at its foundation, this is a novel about marriage. There is the disaster of Kit's and Cal's marriage, the non-marriage of Sunny's loving parents, the 1950's model of the dominant male in Cal's parents' marriage, the traditional Indian marriage roles of the Patels , and references to several of Kit's co-workers' marriages. We see the myriad forms that marriages can take and the potentially happy or tragic outcomes of those unions.
In addition, Halpern interrupts the text at unpredictable places with language from 21 different poets. The resultant lines of poetry from Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Adrienne Rich, Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth and others provide insight into Kit's thinking. The poetry also functions as a kind of Greek chorus, supporting and commenting on the action and plot. These are not random selections, but carefully curated language and ideas that are, in the words of Coleridge "the best words in the best order."
This is a fine book, exhibiting Halpern's skills as a writer of fiction and keeping the reader turning the pages to find out what happens to a host of characters that one comes to care about deeply. A good read for either curling up on the couch or toting to the beach this summer.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville and Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.