Cole Lavalais’ Summer of the Cicadas merges the surreal with the familiar. The main character Viola Moon is like most of us, unsure of who she is and how she fits into a world she can’t relate to, but what differentiates Viola from us is her sometimes inability to discern reality from a mirage.
Just like her, I share a name with someone I am not familiar with and so I understood her obsession when she starts obsessively collecting books that she hopes can tell her more about herself. As understanding and sympathetic one can be for Viola, some of her choices are…cringe worthy. Her lack of maturity causes her to make some unfortunate choices, but one cannot help but to pity her.
Summer of the Cicadas is heavy. There should be a trigger warning on the front cover. It deals with mental illness, rape, homosexuality, classism, abandonment, among other things, and there never seems to be break from one or the other. It is a series of rolling punches right in the gut. Even though I haven’t dealt with some of those issues, Lavalais’ writing style places you right in Vi’s mind, leaving you helpless to separate your existence from hers.
Needless to say, the book stayed with me long after I put it down. I was quite enthralled with Lavalais’ unique blend of often talked about Black collegiate culture and not as much talked about mental illness in the Black community. Someone who doesn’t suffer from a mental illness can often forget that ones who do are trying to live a regular functioning life just like them. It was refreshing (yet disturbing) to have a front row seat into the mind of a young, Black college woman dealing with a mental illness.
The supporting characters in Summer of the Cicadas seem to only assist with Vi’s mental deterioration- not to mention they are dealing with their own mental issues. Vi’s frat boyfriend, Perry, lives a double life and for a while I thought he would be her saving grace. She found comfort in him, yet ultimately it was his unfathomable actions that led to her spiral down. There’s Ronnie, another friend living a double life, who seems to want the best for Vi, but she continuously lets him down. It is through this relationship though that Vi finds possible redemption from herself.
There are a host of other characters in Summer of the Cicadas that tiptoe between being ruthless or unreal, but out of all the most significant characters are Vi’s parents. Throughout the book, Vi relentlessly fights her mother (the person who seems to care most about her) and she searches tirelessly for her father who abandoned her.
All of the characters are fighting personal demons and mostly their find their salvation. Vi tries to fix herself using the same methods they’ve used, but she ultimately realizes after they all leave her that she will have to save herself in her own way.
Still, there is no typical happy ending in Summer of the Cicadas. Vi doesn’t get a happily ever after, which is probably why the book left me feeling unsettled. I wanted nothing more than Vi to find her sanity, but it doesn’t happen. If you’re not easily triggered and want to read a haunting tale by an exceptionally talented Black female writer, you should definitely give Summer of the Cicadas a read.