Thursday, March 1, 2012

Review: The Summer of Firsts and Lasts

Terra Elan McVoy
Simon Pulse
For sisters Calla, Violet, and Daisy, summer camp is something special. It's the place their parents met and, for Calla at least, the three weeks away from home during the summer have always been something to look forward to. This year Calla's working as an assistant to the camp director while Violet has her last summer as a camper and Daisy tries to figure out who she is apart from her older sisters. Added to the girls' summer-camp-related stories are their romantic lives: Calla hopes to finally admit her feelings to her best friend, sure that he feels the same way, while Violet's attraction to a boy she knew two summers ago is undeniable and Daisy's first-day-of-camp crush turns out worse than she expects. 

This is a difficult story to sum up, which is probably why the jacket-flap summary feels so misleading (and, to be honest, what I wrote above isn't too much better): this book isn't really about boys. It's about three sisters and how their last summer all together at camp defines and changes them. Told from the POVs of each girl, the story develops their personalities and the dynamics between them well, if a bit strangely. The fact is that while this is very much a book about the bonds of sisterhood, for a large part of the book Calla, Violet, and Daisy don't have many scenes together. Calla's busy behind the scenes of camp, helping the new director keep everything running smoothly; it's a job she's proud to have gotten but it's obvious that for Calla, who loves camp more than any of them, not getting to truly experience it this summer is a letdown. Violet, tired of always playing by the rules, falls under the spell of a rebellious fellow camper, Brynn. And Daisy, the youngest, deals with being something of an outcast in her cabin, thanks to her more introspective personality and the fact that she's not willing to bend to others' expectations of her.

In a big way, I loved this book. At different times during the course of the story I related strongly to each of the sisters: though the timespan of The Summer of Firsts and Lasts is only two weeks, there's so much detail and so much happening both internally and externally, that it feels like much longer. There's love, friendship, heartbreak, nonconformity, and unity all conveyed here. The emotions and relationships are rarely straight-forward, even and especially between the sisters themselves. While it's obvious that they love each other and would do anything for one another, there's the usual push-and-pull of family and of sisters that McVoy writes incredibly well.

Outside of the sister's relationships with each other, there's the romantic aspect of the book, which was a bit hit-and-miss for me. Calla's friendship with Duncan, the boy she's in love with, seems predictable from the outset: she's sure that he shares her feelings and that this will finally be their summer while her sisters, who've seen this play out again and again between the two of them, think she's being a little pathetic and wish she would just confess her feelings and get it over with. I wanted more out of this relationship, more that showed just how close Calla and Duncan were and why their relationship was so confusing. And there are glimpses of this, but because they rarely see each other, it was never as much as I wanted.

Meanwhile, Violet's unstoppable crush on James, a boy she knew from two summers ago, is a very different sort of relationship and since it's the most romantic/couple-y one in the book, I wish it had been handled a bit differently. For the most part, Violet and James don't talk. They share glances, they're constantly aware of each other, and they sneak off together in the night. But the majority of scenes we get between them are purely physical and, considering how attached Violet is to him, how happy he makes her, and how authentic these feelings come across, I wish there had been more. More of his personality and more of their dynamic together. Because while I really wanted to root for them, it's hard to root for a couple you really know next to nothing about.

And this, unfortunately, gets at one of my biggest problems with The Summer of Firsts and Lasts: it's often hard to really pin down these character's personalities. Part of this, I think, is because they're in the world of summer camp, which doesn't quite operate the way other settings/places do. Though the emotions come across so incredibly clear, it's sometimes difficult not having something solid, concrete, to hang those emotions on. Terra Elan McVoy is a uniquely talented writer and I love this book -- it's a bittersweet story with complex, realistic emotions -- but still I sometimes felt like there was a little bit of something missing.

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