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Sunday, June 26, 2011

'The Summer I Turned Pretty' Summer #1 by Jenny Han

From the BLURB:

Everything that happened this past summer, and every summer before it, has all led up to this. To now.

Every year Isabel spends a perfect summer at her family friends' house. There's the swimming pool at night, the private stretch of sandy beach . . . and the two boys. Unavailable, aloof Conrad – who she's been in love with forever – and friendly, relaxed Jeremiah, the only one who's ever really paid her any attention.

But this year something is different. They seem to have noticed her for the first time. It's going to be an amazing summer – and one she'll never forget . . .

Isabel ‘Belly’ Conklin measures her life in summers. Each year it’s a countdown to the glorious months spent in Cousins, at Susannah’s summer house. Belly’s mother and Susannah are childhood friends, as close as sisters. Belly and her brother Steven have been visiting the summer house since infancy, and spending long, lazy summer days in the company of Susannah’s boys, Conrad and Jeremiah Fisher.

As much as Belly loves the summer house and visiting her pretend-mother Susannah, she always feels out of step with her childhood friends. She is the youngest of the summer kids, and the only girl in this close-knit boys club. She was always pleading to tag along or being left out – desperate to be a part of the group, but always out of sync.

Things became even more complicated for Belly when she developed her first real crush on Conrad, the elder of the Fisher boys. Jeremiah was always funny and smiling, he is Belly’s best friend in the whole world. But Conrad, he’s different. The eldest of the kids, he is quiet and aloof, full of pride and quiet intensity and Belly hero-worshipped him throughout her younger years. As a young teenager her crush turned to love of the first and permanent kind . . . but as much as Belly pined after Conrad, he remained oblivious to her devotion . . . Until this summer.

This summer, Belly is turning sixteen, and Jeremiah and Conrad are both noticing her in a whole new light.

The summer house is where Belly did most of her growing up, and experienced the majority of her first’s. First kiss. First crush. First love. First heartbreak.

‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’ is the first book in the contemporary romance YA ‘Summer’ trilogy from Jenny Han.

I have had all three ‘Summer’ books sitting in my TBR pile since April. I impulsively bought them when the final book in the trilogy was released, and ‘Summer’ fandom seemed to reach a fever-pitch. I was pretty sure I'd love these books – they sounded like a good, juicy bit of contemporary romance fun and I adored the whimsical front covers. Still, I was a little taken aback by just how much I loved these books . . . consuming all three in one weekend and devouring a box of Kleenex in the process!

The same way that other children measure the year according to Christmas’s approach, Belly measures by summers. Every year for as long as she can remember she, her mother and brother would leave their father behind and venture to Cousins and the summer house. It was here that Belly took comfort in the nurturing home of Susannah, her mother’s dearest friend and Belly’s confidante (whom she often felt closer to than her own biological mother). But the summer house was most special for Belly’s boys – Jeremiah and Conrad. These are two people she has grown up with – from bullying kids to surly young adults and finally turning into intriguing young men . . .

Belly’s story is that of young love. Because as much as her calendar is a countdown to summer, Belly’s life has been marked by these two boys and their impact on her. . .

Jeremiah owns her first kiss. Conrad taught her to dance. They have, in turn, been her best friends and worst enemies. Jenny Han marks the up’s and down’s of Belly’s tumultuous friendship with the boys – from young buddies to blossoming crushes – through flashbacks of various other summers. As Belly lives out the summer of her sweet sixteen, she is in turns astounded and curious at the impact her changing self is having on Jeremiah and Conrad . . . as their dynamic alters, she thinks back to the summer’s when she was 11, 12, 13 and nothing but an annoying tag-along to their big boys club.

I’m not always a huge fan of the flashback, but Han utilizes it superbly – equal parts informative and whimsical. It’s the retrospect of a young girl; so Belly swings between being outraged by the boy’s bad behaviour, to heart sick with love for the older and elusive Conrad. Her flashbacks are tragic because they’re so relatable, never more so than when she’s 13 and watching from the sidelines as Conrad starts to take an interest in the opposite sex (except for her) and when he starts treating her more like a little sister than an equal. I loved Belly’s younger voice, particularly because Han’s deft pen does give Belly a different echo between her rewinding younger self, and current sixteen-year-old bewildered by her newfound magnetism.

“You’ve always been lovely, but oh honey, look at you.” She shook her head like she was in awe of me. “You’re so pretty. So pretty. You’re going to have an amazing, amazing summer. It’ll be a summer you’ll never forget.” Susannah always spoke in absolutes like that – and when she did, it sounded like a proclamation, like it would come true because she said so.
The thing is, Susannah was right. It was a summer I'd never, ever forget. It was the summer everything began. It was the summer I turned pretty. Because for the first time, I felt it. Pretty, I mean. Every summer up to this one, I believed it’d be different. Life would be different. And that summer, it finally was. I was.

When these books were initially released and creating a furore, I was a little sceptical of the title. ‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’ sounded sickeningly egotistical, and I worried that this would be a book about a girl realizing her body’s new effect on the opposite sex. Let’s face it, as women we’ve all known girls like that . . . those who were so sweet in their younger years, but became boy-crazy in puberty and saw fellow female as ‘the enemy’. Thankfully, Han’s title is a little misleading . . . It’s clear from Conrad and Jeremiah’s reactions to her that Belly has grown from a child into a young woman in the span of one year. To read their responses to her, we can tell that Belly has even turned into quite the beautiful young woman. But Belly herself remains none the wiser. She still prefers oversized T-shirts to dresses. She hates heels and lives in sneakers. And she marks herself as wanting when she compares her looks to the girl’s Conrad is interested in. Han also discounts Belly’s vanity by comparing her to her best friend, Taylor, who visited the summer house at age 14 and was indeed one of those girls who was pretty, and knew it.

I loved Belly. I loved that she was oblivious to herself, yet acutely aware of those around her. She is a very observant young girl, especially when it comes to Jeremiah and Conrad. She wisely observes the fact that she feels a twinge of jealousy when Jeremiah takes an interest in Taylor (when he has never noticed Belly in such a way). And she can read Conrad like an open book, even when his actions belie his true feelings . . . . Belly is just like so many young girls. Awkward and blossoming, unknowing of herself and unbelieving of people’s interest in her.

I loved Belly and her evolving relationship with the summer boys. But I also think that ‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’ is a rather impressive character exploration. Conrad and Jeremiah are not boy-crush-prototypes. They’re both complicated and messy young men – Conrad in his surly anger and quiet pride, and Jeremiah’s hidden feelings of inferiority against his older brother, beloved by their father. And it’s not just that boys who get deep back story – the adults in Han’s novel are as important as their children. Susannah is keeping secrets, and it’s more than just her crumbling marriage. Belly can’t figure out why her parents divorced, but believes it’s because her mother is an enigma. . . I love any YA book that puts parents in the spotlight and doesn’t just sweep them under the rug. Han writes an excellent intertwining story of young and old, heartbreak and romance by including stories that concern the young characters and their parents.

‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’ is a great little slice of contemporary romance. It’s a very tame romance, since Belly is just starting out in womanhood . . . but the book is full of wanting. Belly’s heartache bleeds on the page and every girl reading (and a few women too!) will completely and utterly live Belly’s soaring crush and devastating heartbreak. It’s young love, in all its up and down glory.

5/5

3 comments:

  1. This is an excellent review. You look so deeply into the book and do a great job of describing the things that made you appreciate it in a way that I didn't :)

    I hope you don't mind me linking to your review at the bottom of mine - it's the perfect example of the alternative opinion!

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  2. i loved the books so much!! i love belly too =)

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  3. Just picked this up at the used bookstore b/c I thought I recalled a favorable review by you. I need a "palate cleanser" - my reading has been restless and nothing seems to make me happy - hope this book sets me straight and back into reading ;)

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