Swallowtail Summer by Erica James - book review: Clever, engrossing summer reading with the feelgood factor

Swallowtail Summer by Erica James
Swallowtail Summer by Erica James

The lush landscape of the Norfolk Broads has been an idyllic holiday escape for three closely-bound families for decades… but changes are on the way that will affect them all.

Erica James – a reigning queen of domestic drama and author of beautiful novels like Summer at the Lake, Song of the Skylark and Coming Home to Island House – brings us a sweeping tale of secrets, lies, love, loss and betrayal set against a stunning riverside backdrop.

James, loved by an army of readers for her acute insight into the dynamics of family life and her eye for what makes us humans tick, blends nostalgia, rural charm and human drama to deliver a perfect package of summertime reading.

Linston End, the bewitching old house with its thatched roof and lawn sweeping down to the water’s edge on the Norfolk Broads, has been the holiday home to three families for many years, their time for togetherness.

For the Lucas, Wyatt and Fielding families, memories of summer escapes there are ingrained in their hearts… picnics on the river, gin and tonics in the pavilion at dusk, and hours spent seeking out the rare, local swallowtail butterflies.

But 62-year-old widower Alastair Lucas, who spent most of his childhood there with his two prep school friends Simon Wyatt and Danny Fielding, has been faced with a few of life’s slings and arrows over the past year, not least the death of his wife Orla in an accident.

He has been travelling abroad for the last six months, trying to come to terms with his loss, and now he is about to shock his circle of friends with the decisions he has made and the ‘drastic step’ he is about to take… it will mean changes for all of them.

Simon, one of the ‘blood brothers,’ has retired recently and is mooching about at his London home ‘like a bored teenager.’ His wife, Sorrel, always knew that when she married Simon, it was a case of ‘buy one, get two free, plus wives’ but the men’s ultra-close relationship still rankles.

Meanwhile, Danny is struggling to recover from the physical and emotional fall-out from a heart attack earlier in the year and is ‘scared of time running out’ for himself. His wife, Frankie, is understandably over-protective for him and what he considers to be just ‘a small bump in the road’ has had big repercussions.

When the three families – including Simon’s children Rachel and Callum and Danny’s daughter Jenna – converge on Linston End, it feels like the end but for others, it might just be the beginning…

Imbued with James’s trademark warmth and emotional wisdom, Swallowtail Summer is a story packed full of unexpected twists and turns, exquisitely drawn characters and powerful passions as the ties between three families start to unravel under the weight of suspicion, jealousy and shocking revelations.

James is always at her best when she explores family relationships and as the two generations gather together, an enthralling and atmospheric domestic drama plays out in which secrets new and old rise to the surface, and lives are changed forever.

As always, there are lessons to be learned – it’s never too late to grab happiness, and family and friendships should be treasured – but the starring role must go to the gorgeous Norfolk landscape, a land of green and pleasant beauty and spectacular swallowtail butterflies.

Clever, engrossing summer reading with the feelgood factor…

(Orion, hardback, £12.99)