By Susan DeFreitas
Harvard Square Editions
Reviewed by Michael B. Tager
Post-college, and the days immediately preceding it, is not the easiest time for many graduates. Not because it's difficult per se, but because it requires a seismic paradigm shift in thought and attitude. Hot Season, Susan DeFreitas's debut novel, captures this difficult time in the life of one college senior, contrasting it with the lives of incoming freshmen and a storm of ecological unrest at a small, private college in New Mexico. It's an engaging year in the life that reminds the reader of sharp turns in his or her own journey.
Rell, the protagonist, is a typical college senior, studious, politically conscious, randy, open to new ideas and, at the same time, resistant to challenge. She's attending the politically radical Deep Canyon College with an eye to graduation when she's unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend. She decides to board with freshmen and encounters both Katie and Crockett, one recently radicalized and the other, perhaps an FBI plant, set to ferret out those who are challenging the system. It's these encounters with Katie and Crockett that make Rell question just what exactly it is she's doing in her life. Has she lost touch with the heartfelt activist she was herself only a few years ago? Is she ready to move on to the working world? These are difficult questions, more difficult because as a senior in college, the typical person knows only enough to get into trouble, not so much to get out of it. It's this central dilemma that Rell finds herself in. How much one empathizes with her—well, that's up to the reader.
What works best in Hot Season is the quiet struggle that Rell faces. It's a common scenario perhaps (I'm personally reminded of Noah Baumbach's film Kicking and Screaming), but very well drawn here. DeFreitas does a credible job sketching Rell's inner turmoil, her desire to appease her academic goals, her desire to fight for what she believes in, her inner pettiness, and her own push and pull of safety and security versus adventure.
Sure, Rell could call off. While she was at it, why not get an extension on her thesis? She could go on to not graduate and pay for an extra semester with money she didn't have, while Katie here pissed away her parents' prodigious piles of cash by skipping classes and marching around the Crest Top County Courthouse Plaza with all those pretty puppets she'd made, chanting slogans. Like that was going to stop the kind of people who responded to a lawsuit by blowing up a man's cow tanks.
I think many of us are familiar with those inner monologues. Yes, the person exhorting us to fight for what we believe in or to follow our dreams or to make our art . . . they're speaking truth. They're not wrong. But so often, those people are young, or rich, or privileged—"I fell for a trustafarian," goes one memorable line—in any number of other ways and they don't really understand the full picture. Yes, as with Hot Season, there's a cause worth fighting for (draining a water source for development), but, as Rell thinks, isn't Katie a bit new to the game to be lecturing her? A little rich and able to afford the luxury of blowing off classes? And if she gets arrested for protesting, well, her mother the Senator can likely get her off.
And this is the area where Hot Season loses its way. In addition to Rell's contemplative journey, Hot Season follows Katie's radicalization and two other minor characters, Michelle and Jenna, and all of their involvements with the development around Deep Canyon College. While Jenna's story about love and sex and infidelity is entirely forgettable, both Michelle and Katie's involvement with a barely-seen radical named Dyson pushes the story along. Someone blew up a dam, someone is planning on using explosive timers, and the reader is given those stories from a more direct viewpoint. Does it work? Maybe, maybe not.
Hot Season feels to me like Rell's story, the story of a particular time in a person's life when she's faced with unexpected resistance and unwanted contemplation. But the plot that DeFreitas writes is too concerned with the reader understanding a whole scene and background. Do we need Michelle's backstory and her relationship with the environmental bomber Dyson? What does Jenna's direct point-of-view affair with Crockett add to what's going on? I'm not sure. These sections are well-written and engaging, but they feel like so much filler when the plot could better have been served by Rell's involvement and observation. I'd be curious to read it all from Rell's perspective and to fully read how she changed after meeting Dyson and after her own sexual betrayal, reflected by her foil, Katie.
Of course, that's me rewriting the construction of Hot Season. Other readers may enjoy the multiple point of views, appreciating the glimpses into other milestones in a young person's life. Besides, what DeFreitas has written is engaging and rewarding enough. It reminded me of the end of my own college days, my own encounters with activists insisting I'm not giving enough when in fact I'd given all I had to give (that Hot Season remains universal while at the same time remaining centered on an all female cast of main characters speaks to the importance of diversity in fiction). It reminded me of the idealism I felt the first time I encountered something important as well as the all-too-soon weariness after that initial energy was diluted.
Hot Season voices the concerns of a period of life, which is short and difficult to capture, and does it well. DeFreitas knows how to trigger that season in the readers' lives, and hones in well with her writing. Reading Hot Season is a trip to who we all used to be and might provide some insight on just who exactly we are now.