Summer in a Red Mustang with Cookies is a hilarious and poignant look back to the summer of 1969 in a small northwestern Ontario town. A "coming of age" novel, told by Jo Fasano, 25 years after the "unbearably hot" summer that changed her life forever. Lifelong, yet antagonistic friends, Jo and Harold Korkala meet up with the charismatic American, Beth Luoto, the new girl on the block. The trio becomes fast friends in a fast car as Beth takes Jo and Harold on the joyride of their lives that is at once "exhilarating and terrifying".
With the backdrop of world events - from rock star weddings to celebrity deaths; notorious murders and political scandals; from the Vietnam war to the famous "man on the moon", Jo tells her heart-breaking funny story of teenage angst, undying friendship and love, family secrets and lies, heart break and heart burn, tears and laughter, experimentation with drugs, sex and rock 'n roll and the ultimate in betrayal. It was a time of peace, love and misunderstanding.
From the moment Beth arrives in the neighborhood (on the same day that Judy Garland dies) she "seems to cast a spell on everyone she meets". She becomes instant "best" friends with Jo and Harold and young Danny, Jo's kid sister and relentless shadow. Everyone is seduced by Beth's irresistible charm - even Jo's Ma and Mrs. Korkala are inexplicably drawn to her - everyone but the miserable Joe Senior, who "doesn't trust her as far as he can throw her". Strange things happen to people whenever Beth is around.
The Luoto's move into the newly renovated "Cape Cod style" house across the street from the Fasano's. It was previously owned by Beth's mean-spirited and reclusive grandfather, "old man Luoto", who died there, alone, miserly and shockingly wealthy, the previous Christmas. Beth's father, an aloof, silent university professor moves his beautiful, sophisticated wife, their artistic, "wild" daughter and her ancient Golden Retriever Sammy, from Minneapolis to his childhood home in Canada. It is an incomprehensible move that "only he and his therapist understand", one that angers and further alienates him from his only child. Their American style, education, affluence and mysterious past make them conspicuously out of place in the monotonous row of "war time" houses and blue-collar workers. The arrival of old man Luoto's long lost son is the "buzz" of the neighborhood.
Beth's materially indulgent parents give her a brand new 1969 red convertible Mustang as a belated birthday present and compensation for uprooting her from the big city to "Nowhere Ville". The Mustang, affectionately named Sally, becomes the vehicle for Jo and Harold's transformation from childhood innocence to the harsh realities of adulthood, a trip that is the most fun they've had in their entire lives and their worst nightmare.
The heady journey to adulthood begins in the Fasano's weed infested front yard (where Jo first meets the mysterious and beautiful Beth) and moves quickly to the Luoto back yard (where Jo, Beth and Harold "act out" and sleep under the stars), the Hoito (where Jo's family meets for Finnish pancakes every Saturday), the Fasano kitchen (where they gather for coffee and argue over persians), Sibley Beach (where Beth loses her virginity), Boulevard Lake (where Jo almost loses hers), Waverly Park (for their first "love-in"), the hospital (where Danny gets put back together and Jo falls apart), the A and Dub (where they cruise in the Mustang and look for "the party"), Josh's basement pad (where they get psychedelic), Double Gee Pizza (where they get kicked out for obnoxious behavior), the bakery (where Jo discovers another side to her father), Chippewa Park (to celebrate Jo and Harold's birthday), Hobo Creek (where Jo "sneaks" off to in the middle of the night "to think"), south along Highway 61 (where Jo loses her mind and Harold discovers his), and ends in a desolate "white house" in Minneapolis (where Harold and Jo fight to survive). All along the way, Beth, Jo and Harold cruise in the red convertible Mustang and consume bags and bags of cookies - from Oreos to chocolate puffs and everything in between.
On the surface, Beth is a "fun-loving" spoiled rich girl with an insatiable appetite for new experiences that take her to the edge and beyond. She follows one interest after the other with a voracious zeal - from "movie star" aspirations to playing the guitar; from photographing everything around her in "black and white rectangles" to directing "an offbeat take on Romeo and Juliet" starring a reluctant Jo and Harold. Easily bored and never satisfied she quickly abandons each new interest as capriciously as she pursued it. Along the way she collects a zany cast of characters - from Josh, the psuedo "spiritual therapist" and follower of Timothy Leary; Miles, the arrogant, cute guy that all the girls adore; Donny and Shar, the cosmic soul mates; Robert, the nerd on a motorbike from Toronto; Wendy and Brenda, Jo's inseparable giggly school friend; Erik, the lead singer with the cool band, The Sharks; and all the hippies from the love-in at Waverly Park. Jo and Harold are in hot pursuit - sometimes willingly going along for the ride and other times forced by Beth's iron will. Also tagging along are young Danny and her faithful companion Sammy, given to her by Beth.
But Beth's constant movement from one thing to the next is a cover up for the much deeper psychological problems she keeps buried deep inside her psyche, in the darkest part of her soul. Despite her steady diet of junk food and binges of grocery store cookies she grows ever thinner and hollow. Something is wrong with her but no one seems to notice but Jo. She questions Beth's visits to the town shrink but instead of honesty Beth brushes Jo off with jokes about her " certifiable craziness". The summer spirals out of control as Jo's relationships with her family and friends hang in the balance as she and Harold give up everything for Beth. Their relationship moves from friendship to obsession. Having Beth in their life was all that mattered - so much so they were prepared to follow her anywhere no matter what the cost. And in the end it cost them all dearly in a shocking and riveting conclusion to Jo's story.
We learn of the family secrets - the Luoto's, the Fasano's and the Korkala's. The lies they told to protect each other from the painful truth; lies that almost destroyed them all. Lies that took twenty-five years to uncover. And in the end the truth set everyone free to love and be loved, to ride joyously into the future.