As with most people, I first heard of Peter S. Beagle via his book The Last Unicorn. Not that I read it; I heard about it, in the over-hyped way that always makes me suspicious. I didn't get around to actually reading it until a quarter century or so after it was published. It was in a nice compendium along with A Fine and Private Place, "Lila the Werewolf", and "Come, Lady Death". None of them made much impact on me. Still, The Last Unicorn has had an undeniable impact on SFF readers over the years, so when Summerlong came available, I thought I'd give it a try. I'm glad I did.
Despite the brevity of the book, Beagle takes his time with the narrative, establishing credible, engaging characters, an effective mood, and a story that's appealing in itself, without any fantasy elements. In many ways, it's good that he does, because he's tackling a very old story indeed, and one that's been told many, many times. Telling you what exactly it is would be something of a spoiler, but it's a story of a kind that I don't much care for. It's a tribute to Beagle that he pulls it off. The writing is strong and well balanced, and even some of the mystical events come through a practical, mundane perspective that sets a firm foundation for the story. I'd say it reminds me a bit of John Irving, but Beagle started writing earlier.
There are a few places where Beagle steps past his carefully drawn lines, but they're forgivable. The relationship between Lily, the stewardess' daughter, and the waitress, Lioness (the name itself is a misstep) is insufficiently founded, even by implication, and that weakens the ending. At lease one of the supporting cast is a fairly red herring, and Beagle doesn't do enough to admit it at the end. There's a fantasy sequence at the end that's poorly supported. Another element becomes surprisingly mawkish, and it's a poor fit. These are quibbles, though, and otherwise, though, the book is strong. The ending is particularly appealing; for all the flaws I note here, Beagle hasn't chosen the obvious, Hollywood ending, and the book is better for it.
I'm glad I tried this book. While unimpressed by Beagle previously, Summerlong goes a ways toward establishing him in my mind as a strong, competent, and thoughtful writer. I may have to go back to those older stories and books and try them again. In itself, though, Summerlong is solid, well written, and moving.