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The Long, Hot Summer
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Determined to be different from other people, they have carved out a place for themselves in Irish life by the sheer force of their personalities.
There’s Deirdre, the aged matriarch and former star of the stage. Her estranged writer husband Manus now lives with a younger man. Their daughter Alma is an unapologetically ambitious television presenter, while Acushla plays the part of the perfect political wife. And there’s Macdara, the fragile and gentle soul of the family. Together, the MacEntees present a glamorous face to the world. But when a series of misfortunes befall them over the course of one long, hot summer, even the MacEntees will struggle to make sense of who they are.
From Kathleen MacMahon, the #1 bestselling author of This is How it Ends, comes this powerful and poignant novel, capturing a moment in the life of one family.
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Alma MacEntee. Five syllables that, when spoken out loud (as they often are), tumble into each other with an energy that seems to come from within. Almamacentee. A bubbling stream of a word that, in the time it takes for it to travel through the locks and sluice gates of your brain, calls to mind a slew of images, slabs of information, half-remembered snippets of gossip. A gash of red lipstick, a helmet of unashamedly red hair. That hair that seems to get redder all the time, heightening the effect of the china-white skin and the always-amused eyes. In your head you can hear that oh-so-familiar voice, with its almost inappropriate suggestion of intimacy.
Alma MacEntee. In the less than three seconds it takes for you to hear her name, you have her whole history in your head, and with it your own. You remember her beginnings, how she spilled out of the continuity studio and shouldered her way through the dandruff-smattered suits on election night, an oversized microphone in her hand, the questions she asked famous now for their fearlessness. In her next incarnation she was standing on a small, round podium in a pool of artificial light, a dark, murmuring crowd at her feet. The silver gown she wore fell from her hips like an oil spill and her hair was styled into two shining chestnut wings that swept off her painted face. "And now for the results of the Belgian jury," she said. "Royaume-Uni, dix points. United Kingdom, ten points. Irlande, douze points. Ireland twelve points." As the crowd went wild, Alma MacEntee allowed herself a smile. Of course, nowadays her eyes wrinkle when she smiles, which is why she is careful not to do it so often. Nowadays she is more often seen with her eyebrows disdainfully raised, her elbow resting on the studio table as if in preparation for a bout of arm-wrestling, one manicured fingernail poised to signal an interruption to this or that politician.
She was married to a politician, once. You remember their whirlwind romance. You remember the front-page photos of their wedding and the kiss for the cameras. You remember the divorce, back when divorce was a scandal. (Was it even legal to get divorced back then? It seems that Alma MacEntee was a divorcee before divorce existed.) She was the lover of a prominent businessman, the lover of a famous actor, the lover of a newspaper owner, long before the word "lover" was ever spoken out loud. She was a woman before her time. And while all the Marys and Anns of the small screen were spoken of with their surnames attached, to distinguish them from all the other Marys and Anns out there in the world, while the Eileens and Sharons were sometimes confused with or mistaken for other Eileens and Sharons, Alma MacEntee required only four letters to define her.
On the first day of April—a day she always considered the first day of spring, treating as a bad joke the notion that spring arrived in these parts in February, or even March—Alma woke at seven, as she always did, to the sound of the radio. She lay in her vast empty bed, as was her practice, while she listened to the headlines, suppressing a growl as she heard the morning newscaster mispronounce Barack Obama's name again. No matter how many times Alma lobbed angry rants into General Mail, no matter how many times she raised the issue with the subs, the newsreaders persisted in mispronouncing his name, placing the stress on the first syllable instead of the second. Was the man himself not authority enough on the pronunciation of his own name? Was his wife not to be trusted to get it right? All you had to do was listen to them, for Christ's sake. Swinging her feet out of bed, Alma fought the urge to ring in.
"I'm a crank," she said, even though there was no one there to hear her. She nodded, as always, in agreement with herself. "I know. I'm a crank."
Pulling her black velvet robe off the back of the bedroom door, she made her way down into the kitchen, where another radio was tuned in to the same station. She turned on the coffee machine, and while she waited for it to heat up, she stared out of the window into the small back garden, where her daughter's bicycle lay abandoned against the wall, a garland of plastic flowers wound around the handlebars and a threadbare tarpaulin of cobwebs hanging over it. Across the skyline the neighbor's washing swayed in the breeze, underpants and shirts hanging upside down like a row of dead cats strung up by their front paws.
Alma turned away from the window to make her coffee. In her mind she was already running through her agenda for the day, careful not to get anything out of sequence. The hairdresser's first. Then the dry cleaner's. And she had better stop by the paper for a minute on her way in to work, just to cut off any trouble at the pass.
For that, she'd be needing some war paint.
"Well," said Jim, when she walked into his office without knocking.
He was sitting at his desk with his jacket off, wearing a lemon-yellow shirt (cotton-polyester mix, Alma would be willing to bet) with a Cross pen in the breast pocket. A cheap red tie curled up in his in-tray like a sleeping snake.
"I got your message," said Alma.
Jim propped his feet up on the desk. He leaned back in his chair and intertwined his hands behind his head, revealing the underarms of his shirt, dark and wet.
Alma's expression did not waver.
She advanced into the room, walking from her hips. She ignored the two chairs that sat facing the desk, weaving her way round to sit on the edge of it instead. She had one bum cheek on the surface, one in mid-air, her pencil skirt riding high above her knees. She wrapped her left ankle around her right leg, balancing herself on a single three-inch heel. (Men like Jim aren't used to having beautiful women flirting with them. This was something that Alma understood. Flirt with a man like Jim, and he's yours for life.)
"I'm listening," he said, his eyes bulging as he looked at her. Alma allowed the faintest touch of a smile to tug at one corner of her lips.
"I thought it was funny. Go on, Jim. Admit it. You thought it was funny too."
"People seem to have taken offense."
"Oh," she said. "People."
Eyebrows raised, she waited for him to say more.
"The earthworm analogy, in particular, seems to have upset them."
"I thought the earthworm thing was quite mild, actually. I've said way worse stuff than that in my time."
And she had. There was the piece about Ladies' Day at the races (Crufts for humans), the one about West End musicals (strictly special needs, she had suggested, and was forced to apologize a week later, to special needs people and West End musicals both. It was the first of many apologies).
"Personally, I think the obesity piece was my most offensive to date."
He put his hand over his face.
"Don't remind me."
She had him now. She knew she had him. But he still had to put up the pretense of a fight.
"Alma," he said, throwing his arms out wide. "You know as well as I do. I pay you to be provocative. People read your column because it's provocative. But there's a line there, and we need to stay on the right side of it."
"So what are you saying? The earthworm thing was the wrong side of the line?"
"Forty-six e-mails, twelve letters and nineteen phone calls."
Alma planted one hand on the surface of the desk. The other hand she propped on her hip, and like a teapot, she tipped herself forward.
"Jim," she said, in her deepest, throatiest voice. "People have no sense of humor anymore."
"These are serious times. Call it evolution."
"In that case, we're the dinosaurs, darling."
He laughed. It was the use of the word "we" that was warming him up. The thought of him and her, wrapped up together in that one little word.
"We're not extinct yet," he said, his raw, doughy face flushed with his own fumbling flirtation.
"No, darling," said Alma, narrowing her eyes at him. "We're not extinct yet. And we must not go down without a fight."
The phone on Jim's desk rang and he reached out to pick it up, winking at her with his left eye, while his greedy little right eye slobbered all over her. She hopped down off the desk and sashayed toward the door, enjoying the knowledge that he was watching her arse as she went. At the door, she turned to blow him a kiss.
His secretary was sitting outside, watching her with heavy eyes.
"You know yourself," said Alma, pausing to lay a hand on the secretary's desk. "A girl has to make a living."
Eight hours later (after three more cups of coffee, two interminable editorial meetings and a marathon session in makeup), she was sitting in the studio. Her hair was sprayed to the texture of dry bark, and she was wearing a creamy white jacket that set off her coloring perfectly. A skimpy black tank top revealed her milky cleavage. Thirty seconds to air and she took a cosmetic purse out from under the table, opened it up and started applying a fresh layer of lipstick.
"Jesus," said the program editor, in the control room. "I wish she wouldn't do that."
"I wouldn't mind," said the studio director, "but that shade of lipstick she insists on wearing? It's completely inappropriate for a news program."
"I'll tell you what. Why don't you be the one to tell her?"
Sniggers from the shadows, interrupted by Alma's voice, amplified through the gallery.
"Where are we going first?"
The program editor went into a spasm, grappling at the heap of papers in front of him.
"Jesus! Does she not have the running order?"
This tendency of Alma's to wander into the studio without her notes was the stuff of legend. Legendary also was her ability to manage without them. She had been known to present an entire program without so much as glancing down at her scripts. She had sailed through the first segment of an election special once with her constituency guide sitting on top of the coffee machine in the corridor; when at last the ad break arrived and a broadcast assistant dashed in with it, it was only to be stared at by Alma as if to say, what would I need that for? She had winged her way through the peace process, presenting programs late into the night from outside Hillsborough Castle, or Stormont, without so much as a handwritten lead-in. She had done outside broadcasts from rain-sodden piers and muddy fields, or on bridges over flooded rivers, with no more equipment than a powder puff and a golf umbrella. When the autocue went down on budget night 2010, she had not even raised an eyebrow, because she had all the figures in her head.
So if Alma was a picture of calm fifteen seconds to air and flying the studio blind, then this should have been no surprise to anyone. What was surprising was the panic in the gallery. The gallery had never learned not to panic. The program editor was standing up, gripping his skull with his hands to contain his stress. A broadcast assistant was standing at the studio door with Alma's scripts, her little heart pounding with fear as she waited for the opportunity to slip inside.
The director leaned in to the talkback.
"Straight to Government Buildings," she said, holding the button down. "You should have Simon McFeeley in vision."
"Simon!" said Alma, as if she had just bumped into him on the street. "How are you, my darling?"
Her voice shattered the sanctity of the empty studio.
"Hi, Alma," came Simon's voice in return, delayed by a two-second lag.
"Ten seconds to air," said the broadcast coordinator.
Alma gave her hair one last little pat. She dropped her chin a little, to disguise the wrinkles on her neck, as the broadcast coordinator began the countdown. The sting began to roll, graphics tumbling through splintered space. Alma appeared on the monitor, face full square to the camera, blue eyes twinkling. Her perfect symmetry lent her a luminescence onscreen that was not apparent in the flesh. She looked, quite simply, magnificent.
"Good evening," she said. "And welcome to Headline. Coming up on tonight's program, the latest on the talks between the Troika and the Department of Finance. A rude awakening for the drinks industry. And the abolition of the Senate: we debate the pros and cons. But first I'm joined from Government Buildings by our political editor Simon McFeeley…"
"Sweet Jesus," said the program editor, leaning back into his chair. "That woman puts years on me."
The lights were still on in the stadium when Alma's taxi swung into the square.
Bloody waste of electricity, she thought, wondering to herself was this the seed of a column. Not enough, she decided, and let the thought sink to the bottom of her mind.
The taxi driver slowed to a crawl, bending low over the steering wheel as he peered up at the stadium. The place was still relatively new; it had been named after the insurance company who sponsored it, and while at first the city's residents had vowed never to use this new name, it was slowly slipping into the lexicon in much the same way as the stadium itself had ingratiated itself into the city's affections. From a distance, it had a curiously transparent appearance, like a great glass bubble on the skyline, but up close and hovering above the forty dark houses of the square, it looked like a spaceship. A great glowing ship of steel and glass.
The taxi driver was gaping out of the window at it. An Indian man, or Pakistani perhaps, he had a laminated picture of his children on the dashboard.
"Anywhere here is fine," said Alma, impatient to get out of the cab.
The driver stopped at the corner of the square, but he continued to look up at the stadium. "You are very lucky," he said. "You are so lucky, to live beside this magnificent stadium. I would be very happy to live beside this stadium."
It was something that Alma found impossible to understand, the devotion of sports fans to this secular temple. From far and wide they came, posing for photographs in front of it. ("It's a football stadium," Alma had written in one of her columns. "It's not the Taj Mahal.")
"I'll sign for that," she said, desperate to be out of the cab. The arches of her feet were aching and her mouth was dry. She was longing to take off her shoes. Longing for a drink, and the ritual post-program cigarette; it was the only one she allowed herself these days.
The driver turned round to face her. "On my day off, I am going to come back here. I am going to bring my son to see your gorgeous stadium."
The word "gorgeous," spoken in a Dublin accent.
"It's not really my stadium," said Alma, leaning into the gap between the seats. "Now if you don't mind, I'll sign your docket for you."
"Of course," said the driver. "Sorry." He rooted about in the glove compartment until he found the docket book. Rooted again until he found a pen. Alma signed her name, adding a hefty tip as she always did.
As she climbed the steps to her house, the square behind her was in shadow. A small enclave of forty red-brick Victorian villas, at one time these would have been solid working-class homes, but then people like Alma started moving in, attracted by the relatively reasonable prices and the proximity to town. Barely twenty minutes' walk to Grafton Street, Alma didn't even need to keep a car, choosing to make liberal use of taxis with impunity instead.
She raised her knee to her chest to prop up her handbag while she fished around for her front-door keys. By the time she was finally turning the key in the lock, the taxi was sliding out of the square. She pushed open the front door and tossed her keys on to the table inside. She stepped out of her shoes, and with her stockinged foot she gave the door a shove to close it, but the shove didn't take. It didn't take because there was someone standing behind her, holding the door open with his boot.
HORROR ATTACK ON JOURNO was the banner headline in the evening paper the next day. BRAVE ALMA REFUSED TO GIVE THIEVES HER RINGS said a smaller headline on the inside page. And in even smaller print there followed the gory detail: TV STAR LOSES TWO FINGERS IN HORROR ATTACK.
"It's the familiarity with which they use your first name," said her mother. "That's what I'd have a problem with."
Alma's mother had a peculiar talent for tangents. She could discover tangents that no one else knew were there, seizing on them with a single-minded zeal, as if she alone had the power to see through to the heart of the matter.
"Whatever about the fingers," she said. "The fingers you can live without. It's the familiarity, don't you see? They're on first-name terms with you. That's what I'd have a problem with."
Alma looked to her brother first, then to her father for help.
Macdara was standing over by the window. With his eyes roaming the ceiling, it was hard to know if he'd heard. Macdara was often adrift like this. No matter what room he was in, he seemed always to be looking for a way out.
Alma's father was sitting to the left of her bed in a padded chair that doubled as a commode. He was wearing his customary daytime outfit. A nautical blazer, shiny from over-wear, with a handmade shirt that was thirty years old and scuffed at the cuffs and collar. A pair of white cotton trousers that rode high enough on his ankles to reveal a natty pair of turquoise socks. With his shock of white hair, he looked like an aging Captain Sensible: all he was missing was the parrot on his shoulder. He was sitting bolt upright in the chair, but his head had drooped to one side. A lick of hair had fallen across his forehead and his eyes were closed. Poor old boy, Alma thought. He had been the first to arrive. Woken by the early-morning call, he had burst into the hospital room barely twenty minutes later, unshaven and wild-eyed, the nurse trailing after him starstruck. If this was a test of love, then Alma's father had won it hands down.
It had taken her mother a good hour to arrive (even though her house was nearer, as the crow flies), and when she did come she was dressed for a performance. Her long gray hair was swept up off her face in great swirls that came together in a huge bird's nest on top of her head, and she was wearing her trademark black riding skirt with a purple silk blouse buttoned high up her neck. Thrown over it all was a black wool cape. She looked like she was going to a Bloomsday event.
"Darling," she said, as she bent over her daughter's bed.
Alma found herself drowning in Yardley's Lily of the Valley. So her mother had even taken the time to douse herself in perfume.
Maman, nul points.
"Who would you like me to ring?" the nurse had asked Alma, as soon as she came out of the anesthetic. "There was no ICE contact on your phone. We didn't know who to ring."
Thirst was Alma's first thought. Her mouth was so dry she couldn't swallow. Her next thought was that she was cold. A terrible cold, as if she'd been refrigerated from the inside out.
"Cold," she said. "Very cold."
The nurse came and covered her with some extra blankets. She gave her a sponge stick to suck, which relieved the parched mouth but not the cracked lips. As her physical discomfort crashed over her like a wave, Alma became aware of her right hand, bulkier than it should be and swaddled tight by her side.
"How did I get here?" she asked, noticing the curtained cubicle she found herself in. The large empty window to her left, with the daylight just starting to leach through the clouds. From somewhere outside the cubicle she became aware of noises. A clattering of tin; by the sound of it, someone was shaking a sack full of saucepans. The nurse was checking a bag of fluid that was hanging by Alma's bed. She bent down to write something on a chart, answering Alma's question without looking at her.
"You were brought in by ambulance."
As soon as she said it, Alma remembered. She remembered the ambulance men in their astronauts' boots traipsing across the bloodstained floor of her kitchen. She remembered worrying that they'd walk the blood into the hall carpet on their way back out. "Darling," one of them had said to her, once they'd strapped her into the wheelchair. "Now, darling," he had said as they lifted the chair down the front steps. Alma remembered being touched by the way he said it, as if she was his daughter, or his sweetheart even.
"Who called them?" she asked.
But the nurse didn't answer. She was copying numbers down on to the chart from a digital monitor by the bedside.
"Any pain?" she asked, and she paused to scrutinize Alma's face.
"No. No pain."
"It was Mr. Maguire who operated on you," said the nurse. "He's gone home to get a few hours' sleep, but when he gets back he'll come and talk to you. In the meantime, is there anyone you'd like us to ring?"
The first person who came to mind was Mick. Mick was the one to ring, naturally. Why did they even have to ask? She was just about to tell them when she remembered that she was no longer married to him. Hadn't been married to him for fifteen years. As she retraced the steps in her mind, it was with a vast sense of loss. She missed him, all of a sudden, as she had never missed him before. She could have cried with the pain of missing him.
The next person she thought of was Nora, but as soon as she thought of her daughter, she thought also of her absence. Pointless to even try and contact her.
"My mum," she said to the nurse. "In my phone you'll find numbers for my mum and dad."
Thinking, Great! Fifty years old and my next of kin are my mum and dad.
So here they were, Alma's parents. Sitting on opposite sides of her bed, like an old married couple settled into their armchairs around the fire on a winter's evening. (Macdara had disappeared without anyone noticing.)
"Is he asleep?" asked Alma's mother, nodding toward Alma's father.
"Who?" said her father, snapping himself awake. "Not at all. I was just dozing."
"It's the narcolepsy," said her mother, speaking to Alma. "It's genetic. His father had it before him."
"Nonsense," said Alma's father, yawning. "You're just jealous of my ability to fall asleep at will."
Alma's mother sat up even straighter in her chair and without comment began to nudge any stray hairs away from her forehead, using spidery fingers. That famous hair; it lent her an air of theatricality that was by no means accidental. She liked to think she still belonged to the theater, even though it was thirty years since she'd been on a stage.
Mad old bag was the general impression she gave, whereas Alma's father was a wonderful eccentric. An inequity that was apparent to nobody more than to Alma's mother herself. "Your father," she would say, "seems to have achieved a kind of cult status in his old age. But I, on the other hand, remain a mere curiosity." And while all of his eccentricities seemed effortless (the disco dancing and the eye makeup, the clapped-out old Jag); while his multiplying oddities seemed more an unpeeling of his personality than an adornment to it, hers had a somewhat forced air about them, as if she was just hashing over a part she'd been playing for years.
"Oh," said Alma's father. "I forgot. I have something for you from Sam." Shifting his weight, he began to feel around in the pockets of his jacket. "I know I put it in here somewhere."
At last he located what he was looking for, tucked inside his breast pocket. A small, much-folded parcel made out of a single sheet of paper, which he passed across to Alma. Painstakingly using her left hand, she unfolded it and revealed a perfectly round coin of golden foiled paper; painted on the surface of it, in black ink, was the silhouette of a small bird in flight.
"Oh," she said, clamping it to her heart. "I love it. Tell Sam I said thank you."
Sam, who you couldn't help but love, even though Sam, just twenty-four years old at the time and fresh out of Tangier, was the reason why Alma's parents' marriage had broken down. ("Oh, that's rubbish, darling," Alma's mother had said once. "It wasn't the affair with a younger man that ruined our marriage. It was your father's vulgar addiction to Hellmann's mayonnaise.")
"How is he?" Alma's mother asked now, with genuine concern.
Cheerfully, Alma's father bobbed his head.
"Oh, he's much the same. Although he's not happy with the new regime I have him on. I'm feeding him mackerel three times a day. Apparently it has miraculous healing powers."
"You make him sound like a sea lion," said Alma's mother, her eyes wide and startled. "Of course the fish oil seems to be the cure for everything nowadays. That and the blueberries." She pronounced the word with great suspicion, as if it was a trick.
"Oh, yes. Sam and I are all for the blueberries. We eat them for breakfast, with granola."
"It's well for you," said Alma's mother, "that you can afford to live on blueberries."
Never did she let an opportunity go by to remind him of her impecunity. Alma laid her head back against her pillow and closed her eyes as they continued to bat back and forth across her bed.
"I'm afraid Sam's diet isn't the problem. It's the climate. He wasn't bred for this ghastly climate."
"We were none of us bred for this climate. If we were, we'd have fins."
"What was that Seamus Heaney poem?"
And so their conversation meandered from superfoods to Seamus Heaney. From Seamus Heaney to Yeats and from Yeats to book tokens and on to Greene's bookshop and the dapper little man who used to deliver their books for them, what was his name?
As Alma listened to them, it seemed to her that their conversation was like a deck of cards that had been well and truly shuffled and then dealt out, each card appearing at random but still familiar. The whole time she lay there listening to them, the one thing they did not discuss was the thing that had happened to Alma.
"Remember that scene in Reservoir Dogs?"
Alma's visitors nodded nervously.
"Well, it wasn't a bit like that."
- "Masterful and starkly brilliant, THE LONG, HOT SUMMER is a fierce, gorgeous work of fiction that explores the secrets, intricate passions, and heartbreak of one unforgettable family. Like other great contemporary Irish novelists, Kathleen MacMahon is a gifted storyteller, and her new novel is by turns bold, funny, wicked, unflinching, tender, wise-shot through with moments of luminous grace and a haunting revelatory power. There is a relentless sense of life within these pages. THE LONG, HOT SUMMER is one of the most thrilling novels you'll read all year." —Dawn Tripp, bestselling author of Georgia
"Kathleen McMahon is a natural and incredibly talented storyteller whose rich characters, full with yearning and the heartbreak of what it is to have experienced disillusionment and grief, are in full scope in this remarkable novel of the MacEntee family; they remind us of what it is to be human and more, in the absence of those who are no longer with us, what it is to have loved."
—Thomas O'Malley, author of This Magnificent Desolation and In the Province of Saints
- "Three generations of MacEntees explode onto the page with charm, vulnerability, and dark humor, as they struggle through a summer of unexpected trials. Reinventing themselves, refusing to be ignored, they will win your heart." —Tracy Guzeman, author of The Gravity of Birds
- "THE LONG, HOT SUMMER is a wholly unique multi-generational story, a darkly funny commentary on the price of fame and fortune, and a heartrending look at overcoming loss in its many forms. Add in Kathleen MacMahon's sparkling humor and lush prose, and this is a must read." —Deborah Copaken, New York Times bestselling author of The Red Book andShutterbabe
- "Showbiz, politics, sex and death - this gorgeously written story tackles a lot of themes, all brilliantly done."—Sunday Mirror
- "Breezy, perceptive, light-footed"—Metro
- "A book you pray never to finish."—Irish Country Magazine
- "The characters are so real that you become part of their lives and tragedies."—Sainsbury's Magazine
- "This book romps along at pace that you can't help but get caught up with."—Irish Independent
- Praise for THIS IS HOW IT ENDS:
- On Sale
- Jul 3, 2017
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Grand Central Publishing