Thursday, September 6, 2012

review: second chance summer

Morgan Matson
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
(bought finished copy at ALA)
Taylor Edwards is spending the summer back at her family's lake house -- the one she hasn't been back to since she was twelve and had her first boyfriend, a boy whose family also spent their summers on the lake. But this summer, Taylor and her family aren't at the lake house for rest and relaxation: they're there because her dad's been diagnosed with terminal cancer and the family wants to spend their last few months together, without work or school or other commitments intruding too much.

It should be said, first off, that this is a total tearjerker. Books often make me sad, maybe even tear up a little, but they rarely make me all out cry the way the last few chapters of this one did. Like, tears-down-the-cheeks, vision-too-blurry-to-read crying. So yeah, Second Chance Summer is sad.

But beyond that. This is one of those YA contemporaries that fits solidly into the "Dessen-esque" camp (is that a term? if not, it is now) -- family, friends, emotion, and a dollop of romance. As far as characters go, Taylor Edwards isn't great. It's not that she's unlikeable or anything, but her most defining quality seems to be her bad habit of running away, in whatever way she can, when the going gets tough. Aside from that, she's a likeable but uninspiring character. Those around her have a bit more variety, from her ballet-dancing younger sister, her academically-driven older brother, to her strong-but-fading father. There's also Taylor's ex-best friend and Henry, her very first boyfriend -- neither of them all too thrilled to see her at first. There's quite a bit of build up to what Taylor did, at age twelve, that's still a big enough deal to have such a huge bearing on how they interact with each other. I didn't love the flashbacks that told this history, nor the fact that it was built up so much: in short, I was expecting more.

And I did get more -- just not with that particular aspect of the story. This is a slow-moving story, especially in the first half, and that's going to bother some readers. But really, the story spins lazily out in a way that works for what this is: an incredibly emotional read about a girl who, used to running away when things get hard, realizes there are some things you can't run away from and time is fleeting. This book is hefty for a contemporary -- weighing in at 468 pages -- and there were moments when the book was perfect, absolutely perfect, and moments when it so wasn't. The romance between Taylor and Henry was better, for me, in theory than it was in practice: I absolutely saw and felt the deep feelings they had for one another, yet it often seemed that this was a little too perfect. Henry had little dimension and, like Taylor herself, sometimes seemed a bit surface-level.

Better than the story of Taylor's friendships and romance was the story of her family and how she gets to know them all a little better during this summer. The scenes between her and her dad, as she learned all the things about him that she was surprised she'd never known before, were heartfelt and real, as were her deepening relationships with her siblings. But better even than this is the writing of this book. None of the characters are that exceptional and the various elements of the story have been used in many books, many times before, but Morgan Matson's writing brings this story, the characters, and their ripe emotions, to life. I could feel exactly what Taylor was feeling, what she was going through; much like Sarah Dessen and Terra Elan McVoy (and all the best contemporary writers, really), Matson has a knack for getting the emotions right and bringing them to life.

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