Summer in the City of Roses, Michelle Ruiz Keil (Soho Press 978-1-64129-171-2, $16.99, 336pp, hc) July 2021.
Michelle Ruiz Keil follows up her gorgeous novel All of Us With Wings with a magical realism, myth-infused adventure set in Portland, Oregon. Summer in the City of Roses is the story of Iph and Orr, siblings who are separated by the machinations of their well-meaning father, who makes a decision with disastrous consequences. Loosely based on the Greek myth of Iphigenia, who was sacrificed by her father King Agamemnon to placate the goddess Artemis (or saved from being sacrificed, the myth offers multiple endings), Keil’s modern retelling places Iph and her brother in the heart of Portland’s music-loving, thrift-shop wearing, activist scene as they try to find themselves and each other. Full of politics, romance, and self-discovery, Summer in the City of Roses seems to be only lightly fantastic until all the casual fairy tale mentions converge in a woodland cottage and stunning physical transformation for one of the main characters. Through it all, the theme of family, both the one that raises you and the one you find, is celebrated. Yet again, Keil has shown herself to be a deft and unique author who embeds her characters into a city setting like few others.
As Summer in the City of Roses opens, Iph has walked out on her father while attending a corporate event in a downtown hotel ballroom, and Orr has been kidnapped from his bed. Their mother is away for the summer at a long-coveted artists’ residency, and while Iph and her father were wholly supportive of this opportunity, Orr has been deeply hurt and angry. Sensitive from birth, he has struggled his entire life to control his ‘‘freak-outs,’’ which could be prompted by changes in routine, loud noises, odd smells, etc. His mother was the one who did the research, learned best ‘‘coping methods,’’ taught both her children meditation and yoga, and shepherded the entire family into ‘‘kinder and gentler’’ practices. But with her gone, their frustrated father takes the advice of a friend and enrolls Orr in an outdoor boot camp designed to force recalcitrant teens into adhering to rules. In the brief time Orr spends there, it is clear the camp is a horror and his father had made a terrible mistake. Orr escapes and heads for the city, and when Iph learns what their father has done, she runs away as well. Separately, the siblings end up in different parts of Portland, dependent upon the kindness of some eclectic and winsome strangers. In alternating chapters, they wander the city, make friends, develop crushes, communicate with their frantic father, and, slowly, find each other. By the time Iph and Orr at last meet up, they are not the same teens they were before, each possessing a new understanding of what it means to love each other and themselves. For Orr this acceptance means something beyond anything anyone could have imagined, and respecting what he must become is the test that his parents, sister and friends will all meet with a level of aplomb that is a delight to experience.
It is not necessary to be familiar with the myths surrounding Iphigenia and Orestes to enjoy Summer in the City of Roses, although readers will likely seek them out as they read the book. The novel is most decidedly modern and Keil does a solid job of addressing Portland with all its infamous quirky weirdness, while not shying away from the city’s racist past. The characters are biracial and mixed race, and acknowledgement of what that means in Oregon, especially for Asian Americans, is part of the story. Further, the queer romance between Iph and George, who ‘‘rescues’’ her, is both heartwarming and appealing, while Keil’s inclusion of teens who have suffered homelessness, abuse, and painful personal loss is all significant to the plot. How all of these characters take the time to ‘‘see’’ each other, listen, learn and forgive makes for many dramatic moments. Readers will find themselves happily lost again in a world created by this beguiling and ever-original author. I cannot wait to discover what Michelle Ruiz Keil writes next.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the September 2021 issue of Locus.
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