Questions and Topics for Discussion
In The Last Summer (of You & Me), author Ann Brashares explores the exhilaration and anguish of leaving adolescence. Telling the story of three lifelong friends – Alice, her sister Riley, and their neighbor Paul – who struggle to maintain their purity against the world’s many compromises and betrayals, the novel captures both the innocent yearnings of childhood and the more complex desires of adulthood. As the former inevitably yields to the latter, the relationship between the three friends realigns in a complex dance of passion, guilt, and love, opening up new possibilities while closing off others forever.
As the story opens, it has been three long years since Alice last saw Paul at their summer home on Fire Island. While her sister Riley has always maintained contact with Paul during the off-seasons, Alice’s relationship with him has been defined by their silences between summers. As she awaits his arrival on the afternoon ferry, Alice tries to deny that her feelings for Paul have grown beyond friendship. She knows that they are not reciprocated, and even if they were, to change the nature of their relationship would constitute a kind of betrayal of the bond they share with her sister.
Paul has avoided returning to Fire Island these past years because he fears what will happen when he does. Although he fights it with all his will, the truth is that he is in love with Alice and probably always has been. And then there is Riley, the kindred spirit of his childhood who somehow remains frozen in time both physically and emotionally. As much as Paul wishes he could join her in her state of perpetual childhood, the demands and longings of the adult world are pulling him in the opposite direction.
At first, the three of them fall right back into their old patterns – Paul and Riley forging off on adventures, Alice always left a few steps behind. But soon the attraction between Alice and Paul breaks to the surface, and they embark on an intense love affair tinged with guilt over the friend and sister they have left behind. That guilt is seemingly made manifest when Riley is suddenly struck with a life-threatening illness.
Dreading the attention and pity her condition is sure to elicit, Riley begs Alice not to tell Paul what has happened, and in so doing drives a wedge between the burgeoning couple. As Alice and Paul nurse regrets and resentments over the long, cold winter, Riley’s health continues to deteriorate. Trying desperately to hang onto the lost bliss of their childhood, Alice, Paul, and Riley instead must face their futures. The road to that future is both heartbreaking and deeply moving, offering the promise of new life even in the face of immense loss.ABOUT ANN BRASHARES
Ann Brashares is the author of the young adult novels The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Second Summer of the Sisterhood, Girls in Pants, and Forever in Blue. The Last Summer (of You and Me) is her first novel for adults.DISCUSSION QUESTIONSEarly on, we learn of the different beaches associated with each character: a Riley beach “was when little grains of sand whipped like glass against your skin and the surf was ragged and punishing”; a Paul beach has “low-tide crunchy sand, a sharp drop-off to the water, and a close army of rough, green waves”; and an Alice beach “was truly rare, and it involved tide pools.” Discuss these three characters in relation to the beaches named after them. Are the names appropriate or ironic?
The school psychologist whom Riley is taken to in the fifth grade explains that the mind “has an immune system of its own.” When dealing with distress, “it surrounds the offending element like a germ and stops its spread.” Discuss the thematic significance of this passage. How does the “immune system” of each character’s mind influence their actions throughout the novel?
Riley’s sexuality is a subject of speculation for many characters in the novel. At one point, Paul guiltily considers the question: “Was Riley gay? Was she sexual at all? Was she lonely?” What answers does the novel offer? Are these questions even relevant to understanding who Riley is? Or are they, as Paul thinks, a subject for “smaller minds”?
Consider the author’s choice of chapter titles. Some relate directly to subject of the chapter (“Waiting”), others introduce ideas not explicitly explored until later chapters (“You’ll Turn Out Ordinary if You’re Not Careful”), while still others echo ideas from previous chapters (“Cryogenics”). What, in your opinion, is the purpose of these titles? What do they reveal about the author’s overall narrative approach?
Riley says that she missed the call for a potential heart transplant because she was swimming. Do you believe this? Is there some part of Riley – conscious or unconscious – that is seeking death?
As a child, Riley wonders what would happen if the dolphins in the aquarium at Coney Island could talk to the dolphins swimming in the ocean. “What would a free dolphin say to a captive one? How could one possibly understand the circumstances of the other?” How does this passage relate to the larger themes of the novel? Discuss the symbolic role of the Coney Island dolphins.
The phrase “consider yourself forgiven” is employed three times in the story: by Alice, as part of her ultimatum to Paul at the beginning of their romance; by Ethan, after Paul apologizes for brushing him off outside NYU; and by Paul, when Ethan expresses regret for his relationship with Paul’s mother. Discuss the subtext of each occurrence of this phrase, and how it relates the development of the main characters.
Ultimately, Alice, Paul, and Riley fear growing up because of the example set by the adults in their world – especially their parents. How does each character deal with this fear through the course of the story? How does it influence their actions?