An 80s song for an 80s story.
There are two very enigmatic men in Lyddie’s life: Phelps, her botanist husband, who has been missing for several months, and Axel, a self-absorbed East German artist she met several years ago when she studied architecture in Germany.
Four years ago Lyddie left Berlin choosing Phelps over Axel. And why not? Phelps, on the simple fact that he was American too, had more in common with her. “You are both romantics,” was their friend Sabina’s criticism of them when they asked her what living in a divided city was like. In that same conversation, Phelps sarcastically commented, “We are spoiled children of democracy.”
As Americans, Phelps and Lyddie have disappointed their German hosts. Sabina thought they would be more “free”, more “counter-culture”, and Axel has made it his goal to prove that they are “no purer of heart than the Germans they’re here to keep in line.” According to Phelps, Axel believes Americans see themselves as morally superior to the rest of the world.
Their German friends’ disappointment in their Americanness is one of the interesting themes that Paula Closson Buck gives us an opportunity to explore in her novel, Summer on the Cold War Planet. Set in the 1980s, when Germany was still divided into east and west by 45,000 sections of four foot wide and 12 foot high reinforced concrete slabs, Paula’s story can be easily interpreted as an exploration of immigration (legal and illegal) — From German Jews escaping to Greece during World War II to East Germans escaping to the West after the erection of the Wall to Kurds escaping the war in the Middle East. There are several instances in the book where early immigrant Axel regards new East German immigrants with disdain.
Whatever you identify as one of the novel’s themes above all else Paula’s story is the story of a woman who has allowed herself to be defined by her environment until a life crisis ignites her desire determine her identity unencumbered by social convention or good advice.
Her story begins months after her husband Phelps has disappeared (presumed dead) in the Middle East. Lyddie has lost hope as the botanical casualties began to pile up in Phelps’ cherished greenhouse. Evidence that he has been away too long and is most likely not coming back. She goes through the motions of her daily routines. She agrees to speak at an exhibition of German artists that includes works by old Berlin friends, Axel and Lothar.
In desperate need of solace, she has begun sifting through her memories of Berlin — of Axel in particular:
In the relatively happy years with Phelps, her desire for Axel had tightened into a sadness she carried like a stone in her pocket. But lately, in Phelps’ absence, she’d found herself pulling it out and feeling its edges, some worn smooth with time, others still rough.
I was not surprised when I read that Paula Buck Classon had already published two volumes of poetry: The Acquiescent Villa and Litanies Near Water. Summer on the Cold War Planet is peppered with poetic observations but not so much as to become purple and sophomoric. Here’s a nice description of Axel:
Wearing pants that bunched up at the top of his black leather shoes and shirtsleeves that were significantly too short, Axel gave the general impression that he might be molting.
Paula’s poetry is subtle but forceful enough to set your mood for the following pages. Where she falters occasionally is in her dialogue. A potentially emotional scene between Lyddie and Phelps is sabotaged by outlandishly antiquated dialogue. Lyddie says, “I, too, needed you.” It may have worked if Axel had made the statement with his weak grasp of English but from Lyddie’s lips it is awkward and confusing. Why would a modern woman of the 80s resort to 17th Century Olde English phraseology?
Overall Paula Closson Buck’s Summer on the Cold War Planet was enjoyable to read even after the mysteries were solved. I didn’t like the person Lyddie had chosen to become by the end of the book though I am happy she was not the person I was introduced to at the beginning. I felt sorry for Phelps though I am not sure he needed to be given a voice in the story. He was a ghost — if he was even an afterthought — in the story. And Axel… He was a pouty child throughout the story but very necessary. His actions pushed Lyddie into the chrysalis that served her transformation from follower of other peoples expectations to leader of her own.