EVERY OTHER WEEKEND
By Zulema Renee Summerfield
282 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $26.
Most divorce literature focuses on getting through the process itself. Few books chronicle the exhausting aftermath — custody calendars and copying your ex on emails and the physical schlep of duffels and laundry baskets. “So long, kiddo, see you next week,” is a fairly awful sentence to add to your parenting vocabulary. I spent most of 2014 reading books — both fiction and self-help — about separation. Now, when friends ask me what advice I have for them as they careen toward their own marital devastation, I tell them to start training. Get strong. Build your endurance. Prepare to hurt.
Zulema Renee Summerfield’s “Every Other Weekend” comes as close as any novel I’ve read to capturing post-divorce depletion, and she does so from a child’s perspective, which is exactly as gut-wrenching as it sounds. Almost nothing is as sad to witness as a child burnt out by life — and it is this sensation that lends Summerfield’s impressive debut its weight. Eight-year-old Nenny is observant enough to understand the inevitability of her parents’ divorce; rather than pining for a parental reunion, she pines for a clear way through the split and into a new life. What she wants, in her precocious way, is not a return to normalcy, but a modicum of predictability.
Some of this yearning can be attributed to the period: Summerfield’s novel is set in the 1980s, a time when co-parenting wasn’t yet really a concept. Nenny’s mother automatically becomes the primary parent in her life. She remarries quickly, to a haunted Vietnam veteran, and brings two detached stepsiblings into the family, so that Nenny’s home feels full of strangers. Meanwhile, her father takes the proverbial sad-divorced-dad apartment, where many of the novel’s most poignant moments occur. Nenny views him with a mix of respect and pity. He extols the wonders of nature during a foul-weathered camping trip, suggests they see multiple movies in one day, encourages Nenny and her two brothers to try all 31 flavors at a local ice cream shop. From all this Nenny determines there is “a mania about Dad that’s hard to explain. It was like watching someone lose their mind.” But her brother Bubbles comments, “He’s just trying to be a dad,” as if somehow divorce has stripped him of the title.
Divorce can, in fact, cause adults to lose both their places in the world and their minds; adults forcing optimism amid sad upheaval is a complicated kind of madness that often imposes on kids a constant, low-grade anxiety, and the novel is at its smartest and most convincing when chronicling this phenomenon. Summerfield devotes whole chapters to Nenny’s imagined worst-case scenarios, which are fueled by the nightly news. Her mind races more and more as the novel progresses, and a more fragmented version of her psyche takes over in the second half after a tragedy blindsides the already shaky family.
Maybe this is why Nenny is so attuned to the instability of the 1980s geopolitical landscape. She ruminates on many of the most famous headlines from the decade, so much so that the news events can feel like unnecessary add-ins, clumsily filtered into a child’s day. The novel also traffics in ’80s nostalgia, which can sound jarring for a kid who’s supposed to be experiencing the era in real time.
In short, 8-year-old, third-person present tense is a difficult point of view to pull off in a sentimental novel about a family’s dissolution, though Summerfield mostly nails it. “Every Other Weekend” manages to be both funny and fierce as it reminds the reader, through Nenny’s charming narration, that children are always paying attention. It reminds us that the world’s fierceness, whether in the form of dueling parents or current events, is almost always heavier on their minds than we, the train wrecks they depend on, want to believe.