There’s something train wrecks. You see the damage, and you want to turn away, but you can’t. The scene won’t let you.
That’s how I felt reading Shoulder Season by Christina Clancy. Not that the book is a train wreck. On the contrary, the book is excellent. It should be on the top of everyone’s TBR list this season.
No I’m referring to the book’s protagonist. Sherri is a nineteen-year-old girl growing up too fast in 1981 Wisconsin. Having taken a job as a Playboy bunny at a local lake resort (yes – there really was a Playboy resort in Wisconsin), she’s thrust headfirst into a world of parties, sex and drugs. Both her parents have died so she has no adult guidance and didn’t have any for most of her adolescence. As a result she’s incredibly naive.
This naiveté leads her to make some really bad choices. Self destructive choices. Choices she compounds by making more bad choices. I spent a good portion of the book either wanting to slap some sense into her or cringing at what was about to come.
What was terrific about this book, however – and Clancy’s writing – is that while we the reader could see the bad ideas coming from a mile away, Sherri’s choices don’t come off as contrived. Yes, she’s infuriatingly self-centered and stupid. But she’s also nineteen and we can relate to her thinking even as we cringe in horror. After all, who among us hasn’t been nineteen and stupid.
I really enjoyed learning about the Playboy clubs and the lives of Playboy bunnies. It’s interesting to note that this book is set four years before a television movie based on Gloria Steinham’s 1963 essay “A Bunny’s Tale”. The movie would pull back the curtain on the Playboy lifestyle for a new generation. In 1981, however, most young people weren’t familiar with Steinham’s article, and therefore still found the concept of working for “Hef” glamorous. Especially if you grew up in a small town in the midwest (as Sherri did).
The reviews online talk a lot about how accurately Clancy portrays Wisconsin summers. I cannot vouch for that. However, I can say that Clancy nails what it was like to grow up in a small, working-class town at a time when there was no Internet, smart phones or even answering machines. A lot of readers will find that Sherri’s hometown could be our hometowns.
While it’s billed as a coming of age story, the messages in Shoulder Season run deeper than that. It’s about how the choices we make when we’re younger shape our entire lives, and it’s about how memory can play tricks on us. Sometimes what we recall about people and places isn’t reality. It takes time and distance to see the truth.
I highly recommend Shoulder Season.
PS: Renee and I discussed the book at length with Christina Clancy on an episode of Off the Shelf. It was a lot of fun. You can watch it below. If you like it, please subscribe to the show.