'Dark matter. Negative energy. Pure heartbreak.'
The Square Root of Summer is an exceptional novel about grief and loss. Margot (Gottie) is in pieces after the death of her beloved grandfather, Grey. She isn’t communicating in any real sense ‘all my words were cremated along with him’. She’s not connecting properly with the (mostly wonderful) people around her. She isn’t caring properly for herself ‘That’s how I’ll score my Nobel: one girl’s experiment to live off cereal in her room for an entire summer.’ Nothing is easy for her, nothing is predictable. ‘Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. That’s what the books promised. What I’ve got instead is an uncertainty principle – I never know where my emotions are going to end up.’ And with the loss comes, as so often, not only anger but also guilt. And those emotions are multiplied because she’s been carrying the old loss of her best friend Thomas who moved away, ‘I waited and waited, but he never wrote me a letter, or emailed, or Morse-code messaged, or anything we said we’d do.’ And all of this places Gottie in a separate universe to everyone else around her. For them, life is proceeding on some sort of predictable linear course but for Gottie life has – what exactly? Stopped? Gone blank? Or something more complicated? When you lose people that you love you want both to go back to when they were with you to see them, to hear them, to do things better and you want them with you in the now and in the future (even now many years after my beloved grandmother died, I move to dial her number, to tell her news or ask her help) and so the idea of time travel is as frightening as it is enticing. You want to ‘disappear down wormholes looking for’ them and that is what Gottie does.
We have only Gottie’s explanation for what is happening and she chooses to explain it scientifically – partly drawing on established physics and partly on her own theory, ‘The rules of spacetime are buggered, are they? Make your own rules.’ There was much that I didn’t in any real sense understand (not even with the utterly charming drawings to help) but I did understand the place for the science within this story. These explanations were the perfect explanations for Gottie, never did it feel that they were some sort of clever authorial overlay or display. And anyway I don’t need to understand everything that I read and it would be awful if people only wrote what they were confident others would understand. I didn’t understand the maths in Arcadia either and yet I was glad that Stoppard applied his mighty brain to it. Sometimes (not always but definitely in these two cases) complexity deepens.
It is startling that at the same time The Square Root of Summer is a classic coming of age novel. ‘All I ever wanted was to stay in Holksea and learn about the world from inside a book’ says Gottie - but then it got complicated. It’s a story of first love, not the brilliantly drawn mess that is the relationship between Gottie and Jason (‘Let’s keep us a secret’ I say, and it sounds like my idea.’) but the love between Gottie and Thomas, the love of children as close as siblings and the changed love when Thomas comes back and makes Gottie want to live in the same world as the rest of the living again. It’s a story about the shifting shape of teenage friendship (‘I know you’re not having sex. You’d ask me first,’ assumes Sof, Gottie’s best friend). It’s funny too and of course the writing is beautiful from the first line ‘My underwear is in the apple tree’, poetic but never overblown, ‘Drunk on peonies. Clouds of them exploding all over the garden. Gottie is in love’. I loved this book.
The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood is published by Macmillan, 2016.