“Was There Any Other Choice?”: Wasps in the Ice Cream by Tim McGregor

               Most of my childhood summers were spent between various day camps, weeks at my grandparents’, and the ever-changing hue of my skin. We’d swim until our eyes burned from chlorine. We stayed out later and slept in. In the time before cell phones and unlimited data, we made plans for where and when to meet, and found our own trouble. As an adult, the dramas of yesterday are much littler—always blown out of proportion by raging hormones—and most of the summers have blurred together in a warm haze. This certain kind of nostalgia is one Tim McGregor captures perfectly in his novel Wasps in the Ice Cream.

               Mark Prewitt is excited for another beautiful 1980s summer. All he really wants is to make money at his two jobs, fix up his Galaxie for cruising, and pass the time with his friends. In the monotony of small-town life, boredom has its own dangers, and the teen boys seek bigger thrills with every long afternoon. One of their antics leads Mark to Georgia “George” Farrow, the middle daughter of a family of recluses, and her peculiar ways. Despite the danger it poses to his reputation and her more-than-odd family, Mark becomes part of George’s summer as they cast protection spells, learn their differences and similarities, and become something maybe more than friends. Will this odd romance last beyond the summer and the pressure of conformity?

               Although my childhood wasn’t in the 80s, McGregor captures that yellow-toned nostalgia in a way that doesn’t feel overly saccharine or bitter. Most of the characters are in their teens, but the narration and perspective is largely guided by an adult Mark looking back at this summer. He can acknowledge the stupidity and regrets his younger self wouldn’t. Teen Mark is at that awkward cusp of adolescence—curious about girls, talking a big game with his friends, old enough to drive but too young to escape the suffocating pressure of his life. The push and pull relationship with his overbearing yet distant father and new stepmother add further complications. In more than a few ways, the book reminded me of The Sandlot or 500 Days of Summer or Heathers. The monotony and boredom of childhood summers is contrasted against this life-changing romance with a girl who gives off Manic Panic Pixie vibes. Through the close perspective, McGregor navigates drama and assumption and lets the cracks of possibilities grow.

               The characterization is one of the stronger aspects of the novel. Most of the people who come across the page are given different levels of depth and understanding. We can see how the Farrow sisters, secluded by their parents and haunted by a past trauma, have become stranger and almost mythologized by the town. Mark’s family, too, is haunted by the loss of his mother and struggling to adapt to his younger stepmom and unspoken grief. Mark’s friends—Kevin and Erick—form this ragtag group that is pulling at the seams even as they try to maintain those childhood bonds. A girl who works at the movie theater, the idyllic high school beauty, is perpetually trapped in a relationship and town she won’t escape. Mark and George learn from each other, change, and grow and find a certain kind of kinship in the pain they have suffered and wrought.

               A handful of the settings are vividly brought to life. The titular ice cream shop where Mark works drones with florescent lights and dying wasps. The movie theater, perpetually out of date, at least provides some varying entertainment. Mark’s bedroom is at the same in-between stage he is: decayed glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling, a sketchbook with imagined nudes, a collection of Conan novels and other fantasies. The Farrow house seems quintessentially Gothic. We all have that one house in our neighborhood that is definitely haunted, and this is theirs. The lore around the Farrow family is ever-changing and full of rumor, but the decay and dissidence of their home comes to life on the page. Compared to other novels set in the 80s, Wasps in the Ice Cream doesn’t drop pop culture references on every page or include irrelevant details. Rather, the tone gives us the sense of the moment and lets the story breathe. Perhaps the most repetitive use of an indication is the overwhelming yet distant dread of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War.

               Although the book isn’t heavy with obvious horror, the homages to midcentury Gothics and its own kind of suffocating dread carries us through. The Molotov cocktail of certain characters and the slow ratcheting of cause and effect leads to a climactic inferno. Mark has to make a choice between the person he’s been pretending to be and moving forward into an uncomfortable unknown. George can either let go of her revenge or enact the pain threefold. The town might let go of its us vs them mentality or suffer the consequences of frayed relationships. The climax is built well, but I wish it had lasted a little bit longer before the denouement. The ending is satisfying and earned in its own way, but a little more time over the coals would have been nice too.

               That said, I missed some of the connections between a key subplot. After paging through the book again, I can see some of the vague hints and foreshadowing, but it wasn’t as clear as it, perhaps, should have been in the close perspective. The mystery—which is a decent chunk of the text—never felt mysterious enough for me and I wasn’t curious about the truth. Although McGregor does provide reasons in the text for why this may be, having a character avoid thinking about something so it’s a twist in the end isn’t my favorite. It’s one thing to avoid something related to a key trauma and another to seek it out and pretend the trauma is offstage. The consequences feel a little less earned in this regard.

               You may be wondering about the title. Although it is quite literal because the imagery of wasps in ice cream containers is repeated, it’s also symbolic and given weight through Mark’s perspective. The wasps become omens and metaphors. If we as readers buy into their symbolism then it helps increase the suspense and worry. It’s also a cool detail that tells us more about the characters and setting in a Twin Peaks-ish way. The cover, illustrated by Kealan Patrick Burke, may activate your trypophobia but is wonderfully evocative.

               Overall, Wasps in the Ice Cream is a rich memory of a past summer, full of young love, loneliness, and lurking danger. McGregor captures the golden rays and lazy days of summer in a witch bottle and reveals what’s been left to rot in our nostalgia. I recommend this book for readers who are longing for warmer weather, for those pining after the one who got away, and for the conformists who wish they didn’t have to pretend. If you’re trying to conjure adolescence—wasps and all—then take the sweetness with the sting and devour this novel.

               This review is for an ARC copy received from Raw Dog Screaming Press. Thank you for the opportunity to read and honestly review this work. Wasps in the Ice Cream is available as of February 7, 2023.               

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