In the picturesque setting in and around Cavaillon, the “capital of the cantaloupe melon” and gateway to the Luberon in Provence, sixteen-year-old schoolgirl Céline, too pretty and promiscuous for her own good, has got pregnant, but refuses to divulge by whom, not even to her more savvy sister Jo, letter alone to her father Manuel when he tries to beat the truth out of her.
Described on the cover as a “policier” or crime novel, but really more of a psychological drama, one could dismiss this as a light potboiler, when in fact it conveys a vivid sense of place, a telling portrayal of what it feels like to be an adolescent, and the convincing development of a wide range of different characters, arousing sympathy for all of them despite their all to evident flaws.
There is the hard-working, hard-drinking builder Manuel who finds it easier to express frustration and rage through his fists. Despite his own family having migrated from Spain, he feels no empathy with the Arab migrants a few pegs down the pecking order, which feeds his resentment of the youth Said who drives a hard bargain fencing the antiques Manuel steals to supplement his income.
Then we have his wife Séverine, steered too young into a shotgun marriage, claiming to be content with her lot but destabilised by a single friend’s apparently more glamorous lifestyle together with the shock of becoming a grandmother at thirty-four.
The undercurrents are gradually exposed and clues dropped. As Céline’s pregnancy becomes more obvious, relationships with her school-friends change. Accustomed to admiration, she becomes an object of curiosity and mockery. “Making herself useful” on her grandparents’ farm, it seems that her grandmother, surprisingly tolerant of her pregnancy, is mostly disappointed to learn that the child will not be boy. Her childhood innocence is fractured further by the knowledge that her grandfather has employed migrants without papers so that he can avoid paying them by turning them over to the police when their seasonal work is done.
Jo, who surprises her teachers with her academic ability, “given her background”, puzzles her father by her desire to watch plays at the nearby Avignon Festival, but is soon disillusioned by the privileged, casually friendly group of middle-class young people she encounters.
Gradually building to a dramatic climax, the novel ends as it began at the annual summer fair, at which, beneath an apparently rather similar surface, much has changed in what the English translation of the title aptly calls “A Summer of Reckoning”.