The Summer Book – Tove Jansson

13 Jun

Island BookThe Summer Book is a fresh, vivid and magical novel about seemingly endless summers of discovery. An elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter while away the summer together, on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland, their solitude disturbed only by migrating birds, sudden storms and an occasional passing boat. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, foibles and yearnings for independence, and a fierce yet understated love emerges – one that engulfs not only the summer inhabitants, but the very island itself. Tove Jansson writes with a special toughness, and with a quiet, dry sense of humour, about a small girl and her grandmother, who as kindred spirits share the long days together.

A while back I went on a bit of a Scandinavian literature binge and with summer finally here, this naturally seemed like the perfect book to read.  The blurb is extremely appealing and I looked forward to a sedate wallow in the lives of these characters.

Told in a series of short vignettes, each one gives us little flashes of island life, I particularly enjoyed the disjointed feeling of being set down at random times to experience the adventures of the duo as they go about quietly and peacefully puzzling out the mysteries of life.  There is a sagacity that charmingly shifts betwixt the two, which coupled with a range of emotions and lessons learned makes one wonder which of the two really has the wisdom.

The relationship between the grandmother and Sophia feels realistic and the interplay between the two is interesting and knowing fractious in that comfortable family way.  My one annoyance with the book was Sophia herself, first off she came across as precocious but then her constant outbursts became annoying and then just plain grating.  I stopped short of disliking her though because of the young ‘uns natural curiosity and her manner of always being in a rush whilst she is in the midst of so much she will later wish she had savoured.

Each story is well written and of varied (but still short) length, ranging from just a couple of pages to ten pages. I did find the philosophising a little too simplistic for my tastes however, its pleasant enough and the isolation of the island setting does help to enhance the stories and their messages but the overall impression I took from these stories of people living around nature and contemplating it, are overly familiar and lack the incisive bite that I prefer in my books.

The island is the star of the show for me, its remoteness from the outside world and small size of the island gives the feeling of it being its own world out of time.  Despite the islands size or lack of it, there is plenty of scope for peaceable adventures in this beautiful and natural setting, it has a pleasant homely feel, somewhere we would all wish to spend our time marooned alone with our thoughts.

Overall I was underwhelmed by the book, it held so much promise but failed to deliver.  I can see why people like it, it offers a few little philosophical nods and is pleasant in most ways except for the child sometimes but really I just found it…nice.  It’s an adjective that I avoid wherever possible but it’s apt in this instance, it’s an amiable read but  I just expected more substance for my money, especially from something considered a modern classic.


Posted by on 13/06/2015 in Fiction, Modern Classics


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37 responses to “The Summer Book – Tove Jansson

  1. cricketmuse

    13/06/2015 at 21:47

    I have placed this on my summer TBR. This review has reminded me that I meant to read it awhile ago. Nice books are, well, nice to read, especially in the hammock on vacation.


    • Ste J

      14/06/2015 at 15:48

      The good point is that if you feel as I do about the book it won’t take long to read through it but if you do love it, it is one you can take your time with and savour, so either way its a good thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. LuAnn

    13/06/2015 at 22:29

    I guess I won’t be adding this one to my list, which is just as well since I will probably never get through all the books you have recommended Ste J. 😉


    • Ste J

      14/06/2015 at 15:30

      I am happy to take a book out of your potential to read pile for a change, I really am such a nice guy!

      Liked by 1 person

      • LuAnn

        15/06/2015 at 02:01

        You really are a very nice guy, one who I still hope to meet one day. 🙂


  3. Bumba

    13/06/2015 at 23:00

    Gee, I was going to say that this review was nice. Personally, I would say the adjective I seem to most overuse is “fine”. How are you? Fine. Who was Danny Kaye’s wife? Fine. Anyhow it was a fine review!


    • Ste J

      14/06/2015 at 15:14

      Fine is fine, I do like that word. Being fine is a cultural choice and should be respected, sometimes people demand too much of our adjectives.


  4. leapingtracks

    13/06/2015 at 23:16

    I tried and failed to read this last year for all the underwhelming reasons you mention. However, we have been spending the last few days of the Isles of Skye and Lewis, so I feel I should perhaps give it another go when I get home to keep alive that special island feeling that you so rightly highlight 🙂


    • Ste J

      14/06/2015 at 15:16

      I’m glad it’s not just me that isn’t a fan of the book, I wanted to love it, I convinced myself I would but never mind, it didn’t take me too long to read, not like the month and a half I spent trawling through Moby Dick. Perhaps the island life will inspire you to appreciate more this time around.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Jill Weatherholt

    14/06/2015 at 00:17

    I’m loving this book cover, Ste J. I appreciate your honest review.


    • Ste J

      14/06/2015 at 15:11

      It is a wonderful cover, it’s one of those that speaks to a reader’s soul and makes them covet it even before they read the blurb.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. shadowoperator

    14/06/2015 at 00:29

    Well, it’s not often you get a dud, or at least you usually give a lot of credit to the books you review, so I’m inclined to give you credit as well for your insight. Had you panned it with the true unpleasantness of a bitter critic, then I would (stubbornly and paradoxically) rush out to buy it, but I think you have done the better thing and given good reasons as to what is disappointing about the book, while remaining pleasant about it. That makes your opinion worthy and all the more valid (as usual!).


    • Ste J

      14/06/2015 at 15:42

      I tend not to trash a book unless it angers me and there have been a couple that I’ve done but it is rare. I tend to have a lot of luck in my book choices for some reason but when I don’t like a book I am compelled to explain why because I know that what annoys me won’t always bother other more saner people. I looked at the ratings on Amazon and Goodreads earlier out of curiosity and it seems I am in a minority in my less than enthused opinions.


  7. clarepooley33

    14/06/2015 at 03:53

    I read this book about eight years ago and found it….nice. Yes, you’re right; it is nice. I think I probably coped better with Sophia’s outbursts than you as I have had two daughters who at times had similar outbursts! I tried not to let them get away with this kind of behaviour so either did the menacing whisper bit (scary mother) or ‘vague, batty trying to ignore’ response like the Grandmother. The descriptions of island life are good and I like the close-up, under-a-microscope descriptions of the flowers, rock-pools, soil/sand and so-on. I quite like books (and films) that don’t really go anywhere but just make you feel – a mood/atmosphere.


    • Ste J

      14/06/2015 at 15:55

      It is a nice meander, I agree with you, sometimes it is nice to just dwell and not have some finishing point but just to be. I did love the island, I think islands always seem to be the star of the book whenever they appear be it The Coral Island or Five on a Treasure Island, it’s that feeling of freedom and nature that is so intoxicating. Maybe I need to have some kids in order to appreciate my reading more, it’s scary to think i would contemplate it just to enjoy books more lol.

      Liked by 1 person

      • clarepooley33

        14/06/2015 at 16:38

        Don’t go there!! What a terrible thought! I went for a couple of years at least for each child where I hardly read at all. Horrible! 😀


        • Ste J

          15/06/2015 at 20:53

          Well a lack of reading means I won’t be siring any sprogs then. It’s good to have an aim in life.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Claire 'Word by Word'

    14/06/2015 at 06:11

    I’ve read quite a few of Tove Jansson’s collections of stories now and become used to the style, which is a kind of “faction”, a blend of fact and fiction and certainly this book was a kind of therapeutic exercise for Tove Jannson when she lost her own mother.

    I find her work best to come to without expectations and with the knowledge that she is an artist with a strong connection to the natural environment, in particular those Norwegian islands, which Esther Freud in the introduction, comments on having visited there and ponders :

    “What kind of person could live here? Someone so fuelled by their imagination, so stimulated by the sea, so richly creative that they could find solace and inspiration in what to others might seem a barren rock.”

    Esther Freud

    I too wondered and I put a link to a short video of Klovharun, Jansson’s island.

    The child’s behaviour has to be seen in the context of having just lost a parent and experiencing a double kind of isolation, being on the island with her not overly affectionate grandmother.

    I am so glad you read it and find it intriguing to read your reaction, it is true this work is simplistic and yet not easily achieved. You’ve made me go and reread my own review to remind me of what it was I enjoyed about it and I find it not incompatable with your own thoughts, even though I had more enjoyment from it.

    Here’s a link if anyone wants to read it:

    Summer Book, reviewed by Claire, Word by Word


    A Winter Book by Tove Jansson


    • Ste J

      14/06/2015 at 16:07

      I wondered where I had come across Jansson’s name before and of course now I see I’ve read your post before and subconsciously had an impact on me when I came across her name in the bookshop. It’s lovely to see the island in real life in your review of The Summer Book, naturally my island looks nothing like that but then I would be surprised if it did. That’s a fair point about the reasons behind Sophia’s behaviour, I think I just find people frustrating sometimes and really should work on my patience and empathy. Self reflection is a good thing though and it is good that a book such as this offers it. I must have missed your review, so shall go check it now.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Theanne aka magnoliamoonpie

    14/06/2015 at 14:49

    Another “enfant terrible?” …oh my…I’ll pass on this book 🙂


    • Ste J

      14/06/2015 at 15:20

      If the kid would have been less prone to rudeness and a little less melodrama then I would have been perfectly happy with this little read.


  10. Letizia

    14/06/2015 at 17:50

    A shame it didn’t live up to your expectations. The blurb (and cover) are quite enticing.


    • Ste J

      15/06/2015 at 21:06

      It seemed like the perfect combination of things but it just didn’t work out, a shame but there are plenty more books in the sea, to mix a metaphor and a horrible idea.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Lucy

    15/06/2015 at 07:31

    I love Jansson, I write this with a Moomin mug next to me, as I both love and am slightly scared by the Moomins, but I know what you mean about underwhelming. I read ‘The True Deceiver’ and liked it. It was good, but it wasn’t amazing. I knew there wouldn’t be Moomins, but I still just kind of expected more.


    • Ste J

      15/06/2015 at 20:55

      hat old TV show that used to be on in the 80’s was some sinister stuff. Moomins do rock though, I may have to go and start one of the books to give Jansson another chance.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Maniparna Sengupta Majumder

    15/06/2015 at 20:15

    The book cover looks very peaceful and, I think the six-year-old kid has not much perturbed the serenity of the island and the story. Though a rude kid is something I don’t like much, still, think the book is worth reading. An honest and precise review, Ste… 🙂


    • Ste J

      15/06/2015 at 21:17

      I know that a lot of people will and do love this book, it does have some wonderful bits in it, the cover is a great indication of how the book reads to be fair. Precise, I had never thought of my reviews as precise, thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Jilanne Hoffmann

    15/06/2015 at 20:58

    Perhaps it felt like nothing more than a series of enjoyable slices of life. No arc that leaves one with a sense of transformation at the end, or even the suggestion of a transformation?


    • Ste J

      15/06/2015 at 21:11

      The transformation was more in the nature and the understanding between the two main characters. I think a second reading in a few years will probably allow me to appreciate it more now I’ve got my irritations out.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. angela

    16/06/2015 at 04:53

    Tove had such promise – names can entice, however, since libraryland is teaming with grating children (screeching is more like it) whom I love, but do make for a long summer, I think I shall consider the pain you endured for this review and honor it with a pass.


    • Ste J

      18/06/2015 at 20:43

      I remember when libraries used to be quiet but now it seems to be an excuse to ditch the loud kids somewhere like a crèche or somesuch. When the kids are back in school maybe it will seem more appealing.


  15. anna amundsen

    26/06/2015 at 16:38

    I might say that you finding it underwhelming is a little bit underwhelming, but, of course, we are all different in our preferences and thinking so, it’s all well. I am glad you reserved it for second reading and I’m interested to see what we would think about it when rereading time comes.


    • Ste J

      26/06/2015 at 18:19

      I did expect to like it and it did have its moments, I feel like a bit of a maverick for not enjoying it as much as everybody else on the planet. I think the second time round, knowing about Sophia’s ways will prepare me and I will probably appreciate it more.



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