Michelle Ruiz Keil draws from Greek mythology, Grimm’s fairy tales, and the Latin-American tradition of magical realism for her sophomore novel, Summer in the City of Roses. The gorgeously-written novel is one of those books that straddles the line between young adult fiction and literary fiction, although some readers might struggle with the more fairy tale-ish plot twists.
Keil’s debut was All of Us With Wings, a coming-of-age story set in San Francisco. This time, it’s Portland in the 1990s. Siblings Iph and Orr are adrift in the city, separated for the first time from each other and their parents. While their mother is away for work, their father has fifteen-year-old Orr shipped off to a boot camp. Furious, seventeen-year-old Iph heads into the city to find her brother, unaware that he’s already escaped. On separate, parallel journeys, the siblings meet a colorful, eccentric cast of characters. Among them: an all-girl band of punk rockers, a group of sex work activists, and a genderqueer archer named George.
The first chapters made me expect that their father would be the villain looming over the book. Instead, both Iph and Orr get in contact with him early on and receive permission to stay in the city. As I read, I was surprised to realize that this book isn’t really about siblings trying to find each other. It’s more about the fact that they needed to go their separate ways to figure out who they are.
Iph is seeking Orr, but the urgency of the mission lessens over the course of the book. She spends at least as much time flirting with George as she does looking for her brother. Orr, who is autistic, blossoms among his new punk girl friends. He also discovers a love for performing when he stands in for their bass player—although he still doesn’t quite fit into the regular world.
It’s difficult to write a helpful review of Summer in the City of Roses without spoiling the last fifty pages. Essentially, the story takes a hard turn into its fairy tale source material with a very magical plot twist. Some readers will love it; others may have difficulty accepting the turn. I wanted to love the abstract strangeness of the ending, but unfortunately, it didn’t quite work for me.
Glancing at Goodreads, I see a few other early readers who had the same reaction to the book that I did. They fell in love with the book’s setting and characters, but couldn’t make it all the way with the ending. (One reviewer opened my eyes to the fact that the book’s cover references a painting of nineteenth-century author George Sand. Much like the George of the book, Sand defied gender norms of her day by dressing in masculine clothing and publishing under a male pen name.) I would still recommend Keil’s novel to anyone who loves beautiful prose and magical realism, as well as anyone who enjoyed Phoebe North’s Strange Creatures.
Summer in the City of Roses was published on July 6, 2021.