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REVIEW: ‘Summer of Salt’ by Katrina Leno is an atmospheric look into growing up

Katrina Leno populates an island with magical women, and invites us to spend an unforgettable summer with them.
 

Katrina Leno’s Summer of Salt is a glimpse into a fascinating world reminiscent of ‘Practical Magic’, bittersweet and melodic in equal turns. 

The blurb:

A magic passed down through generations . . . 

Georgina Fernweh waits with growing impatience for the tingle of magic in her fingers—magic that has been passed down through every woman in her family. Her twin sister, Mary, already shows an ability to defy gravity. But with their eighteenth birthday looming at the end of this summer, Georgina fears her gift will never come.

An island where strange things happen . . .

No one on the island of By-the-Sea would ever call the Fernwehs what they really are, but if you need the odd bit of help—say, a sleeping aid concocted by moonlight—they are the ones to ask.

No one questions the weather, as moody and erratic as a summer storm.

No one questions the (allegedly) three-hundred-year-old bird who comes to roost on the island every year.

A summer that will become legend . . . 

When tragedy strikes, what made the Fernweh women special suddenly casts them in suspicion. Over the course of her last summer on the island—a summer of storms, of love, of salt—Georgina will learn the truth about magic, in all its many forms.

The summer before college is a strange, stinging, magical thing. Georgina and her twin sister, Mary, have one last summer to themselves on the island before they go off to different colleges and leave their childhood behind. They come from a long line of magical women, and while Mary has inherited this magic, Georgina’s feet are rooted firmly on the ground.

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During this one last summer, even though death strikes the island, Georgina meets a beautiful tourist named Prue. Though there is an adorable romance between Prue and Georgina, it plays second fiddle to the relationship between Georgina and her family.

At its heart, Summer of Salt is a seawater-soaked fairytale about two sisters on the cusp of adulthood, confronting both their desperate need to move away from their hometown and the realities of their own limitations. 

As is occasionally the case with novels in first-person point-of-view, Georgina felt like the least fleshed-out character. By the last page, it feels as though you don’t know her in any bone-deep way. However, this ultimately worked to the book’s advantage. Rather than the story being about Georgina herself, it felt more like Georgina’s ode to the island, to her friends and family, and, most importantly, to her sister.

Mary is both deeply human and poetically inhuman, acting as a great foil to Georgina’s serious personality. It is immediately apparent that Mary is, in some way, a tragic character with an inevitable ending, but Leno never gives that ending away easily. 

Most witch-centered novels are married to their aesthetic, and Summer of Salt is no exception. By-the-Sea is an island town located somewhere off the Northeast American coast where it’s always cold, damp and gorgeously isolated. Everything feels just on the right side of fantastical, like a Tim Burton film. There’s even an old, rickety house, inhabited by Georgina and Mary’s ancestors for decades. 

This atmosphere pairs perfectly with a story about matrilineal magic, and helps tease out the many queer themes within the book.  There is both the overt queerness — Georgina’s blossoming feelings for Prue — and the covert queerness — levitating women, shapeshifting birds and seductive oceans. It all works together to create a mystical, and touchingly accepting, world. 

Even though the events in the novel are all outlandish and strange, they speak to human truths. Mary’s storyline is the best example of this. Not much can be said about her without giving away spoilers, but her character arc was as touching as it was impossible. Even though magic and potions are involved, Mary is never written in a way that trivializes her experiences.

By the last page, By-the-Sea felt like an achingly familiar place, and Katrina Leno managed to convey a lot in such a short book. Though readers don’t get to know the characters as well as they’d like, the story Georgina tells is bittersweet and special. The ending feels purposefully unfinished, and layers are left purposefully untouched.

Because of these layers, Summer of Salt feels offbeat, strange and fleeting, like a final summer before everything changes. 



3.6
Picture-perfect mood
Plot
Characters
Writing
Theme/Message

A short, but atmospheric, rumination on gender, power and fate. Though the plot was refreshingly original, Leno didn’t leave enough breathing room to fully develop most of the characters, including Georgina. However, the novel truly excelled with Mary’s storyline, which was shining, bittersweet and tenderly completed.