Michelle Ruiz Keil is a writer and tarot reader who lives in Portland, Oregon, and has “an eye for the enchanted and a way with animals.” Summer in the City of Roses is her second novel after All of Us With Wings, and is a retelling of the Greek myth of Iphigenia and the Grimm fairytale “Brother and Sister.” Set over a summer in early 1990s Portland, the story focuses on 17-year-old Iph and her sensitive younger brother, Orr. It is helpful to have an idea of both sources to understand the story better.
Iphigenia was the eldest daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Agamemnon “had to sacrifice her to the goddess Artemis in order that the Achaean fleet, of which he was leader, might be delivered from the calm (or contrary winds) by which Artemis was detaining it at Aulis and proceed on its way to the siege of Troy.” In the tragedy, Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides, “Agamemnon lures his daughter to Aulis by pretending that she will marry Achilles.” In some versions of the story: Iphigenia realizes her fate at the last moment, or dies at Aulis, or Artemis rescues her. In the version where she is saved, Iphigenia goes to the Tauris and meets her brother Orestes. According to Homer, “Orestes was away when his father returned from Troy to meet his death at the hands of Aegisthus, his wife’s lover. On reaching manhood, Orestes avenged his father by killing Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.”
The other source is “Brother and Sister” by the Grimm brothers. A pair of siblings escape from their stepmother into the forest. The brother wanted to drink water from a stream but the sister heard that would turn him into a tiger. The same happened again but drinking the water would turn him into a wolf, and later it was repeated at a third stream that would turn him into a deer. The brother did not drink the first two times but becomes a deer when he drinks at the third stream.
In the Summer in the City of Roses (Portland is called the City of Roses), Iph and Orr Santos Velas, who are Greek and Mexican American, live outside the city with their father and artist mother. They are separated when Orr is kidnapped to a military-like boot camp to become more manly after their mother leaves them for a creative retreat. When Iph learns that her father had orchestrated the kidnapping, she leaves him at a work gala in downtown Portland. The siblings take on their own paths to grow over the summer encountering a queer Robin Hood-like figure who rescues Iph, a punk girl band called The Furies, some friendly people and dogs, sex workers, and other interesting people.
This book was an interesting and enchanting read. Content warnings for prostitution, kidnapping, drug abuse, and homelessness, deadnaming and transphobia (in the context of a character), and implied post-partum depression. Portland is described beautifully in all its eccentricities, queerness, diversity, and humanity. The vast range of characters, apart from Iph and Orr, are endearing and believable. Self-discovery is the main theme of the book but there are also instances of body acceptance, rights of sex workers, queerness of the characters, and human rights. Iph’s journey is more of a journey from her world of privilege to that of growth and acceptance, while Orr seems to be neurodiverse and his journey is that of facing the real world without Iph’s protection and help. There are instances of fantasy and magical realism which makes this novel even more whimsical but the sensitive issues create a slightly darker tone.
If you are nostalgic for the early 1990s, enjoy retellings of Greek fairy tales, are curious to explore a world where things are possible, and have time to sit with the story after turning the last page, then this novel is worth the time.