Shoulder Season by Christina Clancy

nostalgic | tender | vivid | moving | bittersweet

what it says on the cover …

Once in a lifetime, you can have the time of your life.

The small town of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, is an unlikely location for a Playboy Resort, and 19-year old Sherri Taylor is an unlikely bunny. Growing up in neighboring East Troy, Sherri plays the organ at the local church and has never felt comfortable in her own skin. But when her parents die in quick succession, she leaves the only home she’s ever known for the chance to be part of a glamorous slice of history. In the winter of 1981, in a costume two sizes too small, her toes pinched by stilettos, Sherri joins the daughters of dairy farmers and factory workers for the defining experience of her life.

Living in the “bunny hutch” – Playboy’s version of a college dorm – Sherri gets her education in the joys of sisterhood, the thrill of financial independence, the magic of first love, and the heady effects of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But as spring gives way to summer, Sherri finds herself caught in a romantic triangle – and the tragedy that ensues will haunt her for the next 40 years.  

From the Midwestern prairie to the California desert, from Wisconsin lakes to the Pacific Ocean, this is a story of what happens when small town life is sprinkled with stardust, and what we lose – and gain – when we leave home. With a heroine to root for and a narrative to get lost in, Christina Clancy’s Shoulder Season is a sexy, evocative tale, drenched in longing and desire, that captures a fleeting moment in American history with nostalgia and heart.

PUBLISHED: 1st August 2021 (UK)
SHELF: Fiction | Romance | Historical Fiction
AUTHOR: Christina Clancy
PUBLISHER: St. Martin’s Press
FORMATS: Hardback | Kindle | AudioBook

my review

Shoulder Season is an altogether enjoyable novel that sweeps you up in an unexpectedly bittersweet story. This coming-of-age tale is an emotional one … a nostalgic retrospective with hidden depths.  Set in the early 1980s, it’s bursting with real-life social and cultural references that entice the reader to step inside the story and soak up this vibrant, bold decade.  But in so doing, you’re leaving your heart wide open to the book’s deeply moving sentiments.

Opening to a prologue set in 2019, this is the first moment we meet Sherri Taylor living a very successful life in Palm Springs.  It’s clear the life she lives now is a world away from her younger years, but an unwelcome email forces Sherri to confront the past, and over the course of the following chapters the reader learns the painful truth of what Sherri’s been hiding from for forty years.

Whilst the majority of the story is set in 1981/2, there are moments when it dips further back in time to Sherri’s childhood years, constructing a homely and charming diorama.  It’s the warmth and intimacy of these scenes that create a stark contrast to the path Sherri chooses after the untimely death of both her parents.  At nineteen, she’s naive, unworldly, and lacking the stability of adult guidance.  Just one week after her mother’s funeral she’s arguably more easily influenced than ever, which is how she finds herself accompanying her outspoken childhood friend, Berta, to an interview at the Playboy resort just outside their Wisconsin home town.

Catapulted into a role that demands confidence, implied sexuality, and an emotional maturity Sherri struggles at first, but she smothers her insecurities behind a mask of make-up and the armour of her corset.  Finally enjoying the sense of belonging she’s craved, Sherri blossoms and fills the role beautifully – her gauche ebullience is as untameable as her curly hair and a real joy to read – but the growing sense of disquiet becomes increasingly difficult to ignore as Sherri throws herself into a punishingly frenetic party-girl lifestyle. The author’s portrayal of her protagonist testing the boundaries of love and passion, popularity and self-awareness, drugs and alcohol, will touch a nerve for almost every woman, regardless of era.

Following Sherri’s induction to the Playboy resort, the author demonstrates an extremely well-researched insight into this global brand.  Through many intensely detailed scenes, I found my preconceptions couldn’t have been more wrong, as the surprisingly chaste demands and strict rules of Bunny life were laid out with great clarity.  On occasion, I personally felt there were passages where the Playboy details battled with Sherri’s story in terms of plot-line focus, although I can’t help but admire the authenticity they brought to the plot.

Sherri is surrounded by a broad cast of well-developed characters, who each  help to draw out different aspects of her nature, and pave the way for some impressively strong character development.  The quiet acceptance and endurance of childhood friendships underline Sherri’s brittle vulnerabilities, whilst the relatively superficial acquaintances at the resort undoubtedly spark and nurture a more carefree confidence. Arguably, however, it’s Sherri’s quest for passionate love that frames her character most poignantly; following Sherri and Arthur as they fall in love with each other is delicate and tender, thrilling and achingly intimate; whilst her on-off affair with Mitch is toxic and complex, yet somehow still likeable.

Any misgivings I felt towards Sherri dissolved completely in the latter chapters which see Sherri, now in her late fifties, back in her home town. These were some of the chapters that affectedly me most deeply; a lifetime of regret, guilt and self-denial is finally released, but only after some painful truths bring the clarity Sherri needs to finally forgive herself, accept her past, and move on to the next stage of her life.

The fond affection the author has for East Troy – Sherri’s childhood home town – radiates from the pages with an intoxicating openness. It felt inviting and inclusive, drawing me in to a setting I’m not at all familiar with.  The book is written with a powerfully strong all-American voice; for the most part this brought a veracity to the story, but there were occasions when some of the references were restrictively unfamiliar to me.

Shoulder Season is at times, an emotional read, with heart-wrenching truths puncturing the good-time party vibes. It wraps important and sometimes uncomfortable messages up within a fun, engaging plot.  Definitely one to add to your summer reading list.

Thank you to publishers, St Martin’s Press, and NetGalley for granting me this copy of Shoulder Season in return for an honest review.

If this book sounds like one you’d love to read too, here’s a selection of purchase links:
To buy direct from the author/publisher, click ☞ here
To support independent local bookshops, click ☞ here
To feed your Waterstones ‘plus’ loyalty card, click ☞ here
And of course, here is the ubiquitous Amazon link

author bio

Photo: from

Christina Clancy lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her very tall husband, John, and their children, Olivia and Tim. She received a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and taught English for almost a decade at Beloit College. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Sun Magazine, and in literary journals including Glimmer Train Stories, Hobart, Pleiades, the Minnesota Review and elsewhere.

Shoulder Season is Christina’s second novel. Her debut novel, The Second Home, was published in June 2020. Both books are strong reflections of Christina’s deep and abiding love of home; The Second Home is set in her childhood city of Milwaukee, and Wellfleet on Cape Cod where her family has had a home since the 1890s; Shoulder Season is set in East Troy, where her husband’s family is from, and where they spend their summers.

Christina loves to hear from readers, and enjoy joining book clubs via zoom and in real life. 

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