THE SUMMER I TURNED PRETTY
Historically, ever since reading THE LIGHTKEEPER'S DAUGHTER by Iain Lawrence, when I was a child, novels set at the beach have given me a feeling I can only descirbe as: weird and uncomfortable. Similar to waking up from a disturbing dream, except in real life. THE SUMMER I TURNED PRETTY is only the second I've read that didn't leave me with that feeling, which is a feat in itself. The premise -- a girl (Belly) who has spent every summer at the beach with her mother, brother, her mother's best friend and two sons -- is one that I love. Especially since Belly has been in love with the older son, Conrad, since she was ten years old while she's always thought of Jeremiah as more of a best friend or brother to her. The premise is an exceptionally strong one, but the characterizations often fall flat. This book picks up and drops the reader in the middle of what really are the biggest and most important relationships in the narrator's life. Belly knows these people -- Conrad, Jeremiah, their mother Susannah -- so well, but the reader doesn't know them at all. And as much as the characters are described there was still a foggy disconnect that remained throughout the book. The narration spends a lot of time telling us who these characters are and not enough letting us actually get to know them. I loved the Belly/Jeremiah dynamic, but kept wishing for more scenes between her and Conrad. The few we had really only gave short snapshots of who these characters were and the relationship they had. In the case of this book this gave me the very distinct feeling that everything I was reading about was monumentally huge to Belly but somehow it wasn't coming through as clear as i wanted it to.
Usually this disconnect of characterization would turn me off to a book, but this was the exception. The story here, about Belly's "summer family" as she calls them, about this boy she's always loved, about her mother's best friend who's in remission after surviving breast cancer, is so brilliant. So beautiful and important to Belly that I could understand the disconnect. Because it wasn't just the reader who was disconnected in this summer book, but everybody. The summer and its story are covered in a thin haze and though this won't work for every reader, it worked for me. The setting here is vivid, as beach settings usually are. Belly comes off as a bit of a whiner, constantly complaining and feeling left out, but though it was annoying at times, it was also very honest and easy to understand why. Because for most of her life, Belly has been left out of the boys' fun, and she's sick of it. Immature? Sure, but believably so.
What comes through more than anything in this summer novel is the sometimes-complex and sometimes-simple emotions. From her feelings about Conrad to the way she thinks of her "summer family" and her mother's best friend Susannah in particular, the emotions here are crisp even if everything else has a hazy edge. This story takes us out of the normal cycle of life, out of friends that are attached to school or church or work, and drops us into the emotions and relationships that survive even after long absences, that our everyday life sometimes seems to be orbiting around, or waiting for. It is a story of, as the book puts it, "forever friends," and for that I love it.