Review of Invincible Summer, by Alice Adams

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Reflecting on this lovely book, I became aware that two subtle but major watersheds in English social history had been passed by in my adult lifetime. Our four principal characters are graduates of the University of Bristol, yet two of them go on to have very high-octane careers, one as a physicist practically on a first-name basis with the Higgs Boson & the other in the London financial sector. In Evelyn Waugh’s, or even in Kingsley Amis’s day, they would necessarily have been Oxbridge graduates, & one of them (the City trader) would not have been a woman. Also, they only discover that the father of one of them (the physicist actually) is a peer when they see the groom designated The Honourable on the invitations to his wedding. In Jane Austen’s era, or even in my youth, that would have been the first thing everyone knew about him.

We follow the trajectories of our four friends over a period of two decades from entrance to uni to the threshold of middle age. They are Benedict & Evie, who are reading physics, & Sylvie, an artist, with her brother Lucien, who claims to be an entrepreneur, a euphemism for dope dealer. Evie was reared by Keith, her single-parent socialist father, & she goes against the grain by heading for Canary Wharf & the big bonuses instead of the laboratory.

This book could have been a whole series of novels, like A la recherche, A Dance to the Music of Time – both of which I burnt out on fast & early – or Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion, which I mostly hugely enjoyed in my youth for its mix of militarism, academism, & cynicism. But as a single novel, Invincible Summer is a perfect epitome. It recalled for me a lot Robin Kirman’s Bradstreet Gate, but much better, tho’ Bradstreet was a solid four star. Part of my preference is an almost indefinable quality that Adams puts into her characters – except for Lucien who very much overworks the loveable scoundrel persona till it lands him where he belongs. They seem to be people I would truly like to have as personal friends. Indeed, by the time I was half-way through, I almost thought that they were.

Especially Evie, who emerges as the protagonist. Adams’ account of her career as a bond trader is gripping. The only other novel I’ve read that offers the same opportunity to share vicariously the excitement & eroticism of the trading floor was Nicola Monaghan’s Starfishing. Both authors have worked in the financial sector & have a feel for the action. Best experienced audibly, the scene where Evie is trying to manage the purchase of 900 million (yes, million) Italian government bonds (BTPs) was so suspenseful I nearly crashed the car. The dangerous part is that such a huge buy order will drive to price up to the level that Evie’s firm will lose money (& her bonus & likely her job) on the transaction. The trick is to start buying slowly so the market doesn’t notice that there’s a big movement underway, then just before the market closes for the day, put in a large order to drive the price up @ the close & short the remainder of your transaction. Of course the next day lots of bond holders will take a profit @ the new high price & you can cover your short position @ a profit. But you almost feel you’re wearing Evie’s headset as she talks with her broker. ‘Graham. 95.00 bid in 10.” She’s offering to buy the first ten million @ 95 euros each.
“Working that . . . .’ several minutes silence then ‘95.20 lifted, 95.20 to 95.40 following.’ Then the price @ which Evie had to buy keeps going up: ‘Forty lifted. Bid over there, seventy offer on the follow.’ I love the feature where you can get both audible & text on your reader, so I could go back & figure out just what was going on. Of course what Evie is doing is something called “Market Manipulation” & it’s a bit dodgy, tho’ we should keep in mind that in the end all that happens is 30 million euros will be transferred from one financial institution to another & so far as the rest of us are concerned it makes no difference one way or the other. As Dr. Johnson once put it so well, men are never so harmlessly occupied than in making money. Goes for women too. Before it’s all over (& we know it has to end because we are approaching 2008) Evie finds out she was swimming in a shark tank.
Besides creating loveable characters, Alice Adams has a gift for felicitous phrasing: my favourite was ‘weapons-grade flirtation’. A hypercritic might complain that her minor characters are a bit flat & stereotyped – I found both Evie’s personal trainer live-in @ her Docklands ‘apartment’ (American is now upscale) boyfriend (like Lou’s in JoJo Moyes but not funny) Julian & her City mentor ‘Big Paul’ an odious fat oaf & she never quite convinced me that Benedict was really a physicist (tho’ even C. P. Snow didn’t know how to do that). Still, Benedict redeemed himself & lived up to his name by showing a real streak of spirituality. Even the child characters are affecting, especially Sylvie’s special-needs daughter.
No question. Emotionally Invincible Summer will be my Me Before You for 2016. I hope it may be yours.

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