The Color of Water in July

Written by Nora Carroll
Review by Sarah Johnson

The languid style of this multi-generational saga suits its locale: a lake resort community in northern Michigan, a place so secluded it feels like another world. In the 1990s, Jess Carpenter returns to her family’s cottage on Pine Lake to claim it as her inheritance and investigate selling it. Her late grandmother, Mamie, had spent summers there for over 90 years, but Jess hasn’t returned since she was a teenager. Her boyfriend, Russ, who writes for an architectural magazine, invites himself along. While Jess sifts through her memories, he spends hours on the phone with photographers and designers. Jess is sensitive and quiet, while he’s pretty obnoxious, to be blunt. Their romantic connection, if there is one, isn’t well explained.

Characterization is stronger in the sections set in the past. Seventeen-year-old Jess spends the warmer months in Michigan with Mamie while her mother Margaret, a foreign correspondent, jets around the globe hunting new stories (and new men). The dreamy atmosphere of a 1970s-era summer feels nostalgic; the women sport feathered hair, and Joni Mitchell songs play on the stereo. Mamie claims that the Painter family is “not our kind of people,” but that doesn’t stop Jess from falling in love with their son, Daniel, who shares her love for the woodsy outdoors. There’s a mystery, too. Mamie’s younger sister, Lila, drowned in Pine Lake in the ‘20s, and Mamie herself reveals what happened. Jess doesn’t realize how the roots of this long-ago tragedy will reach out to affect her life.

The different social strata in a summer resort town are skillfully presented; likewise, the reverberations of the past into the present. The characters and their motivations are sometimes fuzzy, but the writing turns crystal clear and poetic when evoking the history and geography around Lake Michigan, where summers are highly cherished because they’re so brief.