The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han
It's Teen Read Week and here's my review of a coming of age story taking place in my favorite place and time... summer at the beach! I think I was more in love with the house and the summer life that got lived there at the beach than I was with the story and the characters. Not that the characters weren't well written, they were. But they had too much competition with that setting.
Belly has spent every summer of her life at her mother's best friend, Susannah's house at Cousin's Beach. Every June, Belly, her brother Steven and her mother head to the beach house. There they find Susannah, the heart of the house, and her two sons, Jeremiah and Conrad. This summer, Belly has slimmed down, ditched her glasses for contacts and without realizing it, she's become someone not so easy to think of as a little sister anymore.
Han unravels a story that is so much more than just Belly's story. This is great, because Belly was kind of a brat. I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, since she was always the only little girl and the youngest of the group, you could see her being babied, but with all the teasing that she endured over the years, you'd think she would have developed some better coping skills. She's still the tattletale and she's still throwing little tantrums, all while getting herself invited to parties with alcohol. It was a little off balance.
But, I've digressed. This is the story of a family, not just of blood, but of choice. Belly's mom and Susannah grew up together and now they are raising their children together in Susannah's shore house every summer. They've weathered divorce, illness, all the growing pains that come with having children. In the past, Belly was the tagalong little sister, although she and Jeremiah have always been close, as the younger sibling in each of their families. And, she's always had a crush on his older brother, Conrad.
This summer there's romance for Belly from all kinds of unexpected directions. I think a more mature girl than Belly would still be dealing with plenty of confusion in the situations Han created for her. Despite my disappointment in Belly, I was completely enamored with every other character. Belly and Steven's mom is a little cold, but that's tempered by her relationship with the warm, wise and wonderful Susannah. The boys are also written to perfection. Steven, the annoying brother is pitch perfect. Jeremiah, Conrad and Cam Cameron are all filled with charms, making them a difficult choice for a girl to choose between.
I am not sure who I wanted Belly to be. I was a girl like her who spent every summer of her life at a house at the beach. Ours was in Wildwood, New Jersey. It was my great grandfather's and when I was in my teens, my grandparents bought it from him. It's the one constant that ties all of my family and my life, growing up, together. My cousins, (3rd cousins) and I always fall to reminiscing about Grandpop and the Wildwood house. I spent every summer there, from the one when my mother was pregnant with me, through the ones when we drove back to New Jersey from Minnesota, to the year my grandfather sold it and I had to let it go. Even if I can't bear to drive past the house, it is always there for me. There was a drawing of the house that always hung, framed in the dining room. A girl who stayed in one of the bungalows drew it and gave it to my great grandfather as a gift in the late 1960s. Although, the original went to a great uncle, before we turned it over, my dad had it color copied for me and I have that framed and matted in my dining room.
As a kid, we were 4 generations of a family gathering in that house. The wrap around porch held a lot more people than the tiny living room, and that was where the grownups in the family and their friends, our neighbors, people walking by, would gather and talk until late at night. I remember my brother and I trying to stay quiet, with our heads pressed to the screen windows, listening to the grown ups talking. Every night, we'd fall asleep to the chatter on the porch. Every morning we woke up with some big cousin or other in the other half of the bed.
In fact, that was how my father and my mother's cousin, my godfather met. My dad was kind of lurking after my mom and I guess they were kind of on-again, off-again at the time. He drove to Wildwood, but didn't have a place to stay. He slept in the car, but he was prepared, he'd made screens for his car windows so he could keep them open and get some air. I guess my grandmother never slept well at night, she certainly didn't for as long as I can remember. She found him sleeping in his car and dragged him into the house. She brought him to the room my cousin/godfather was sleeping in and shook him awake. "Frankie, scooch over. This is Charlie." After introductions, my dad took his side of the bed and they both conked back out. In the morning, they got up, went for a walk and talked cars and girls, and became friends.
I get the house in Cousins Beach. I get the idea of family morphing into more than just the people who you are born related to. I know what it's like to be Belly. Mostly, I guess, I thank Jenny Han for taking me back there and reminding me of just how special all of that is.