The Summer

I Turned Pretty

by Jenny Han

Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen

Recommended for: Girls, aged 13 and up. Note to parents: prepare the tranquilizer guns.

One Word Summary: Smoldering.

The Summer I Turned Pretty, in spite of its saccharine name, is a master class in excellence of execution. Exquisitely developed, rich, and enthralling:  If only the author of a certain other, more fantastical teen series of torpid love among the undead, had studied at the school of Jenny Han.

Since she was in utero, Belly (Isabelle) has spent every summer with her mother and brother at the house of her mother’s best friend, Susannah, on the glistening, sun-saturated sands of Cousin’s Beach. For all the summers she can remember, Belly was always just the bratty little kid, chasing after her brother, and

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Susannah’s two sons, Conrad and Jeremiah, left out of their fun, and pining endlessly for the dark and brooding Conrad. But this summer, the summer she is to turn 16, something is different: a new current runs in the air between her and the boys she’s known for her whole life. While Jeremiah is as fun loving and goofy as ever, Conrad seems even more withdrawn than usual, seeking solitude and bristling at nearly everything that Belly does. What ensues is a long, hot summer, full of extended gazes, tragic misunderstandings, accidental touches, and boiling feelings left undeclared.

Absent from the story are adult males. Both Belly’s mother and Susannah are divorced, their respective ex-husbands occasionally phone-in to the plot, but never make an appearance. I mention this absence because it makes for a particularly interesting bookend to all the burgeoning love that concerns the younger characters: a sad nod towards the flip side of Belly’s optimistic coin. The plot of the adults is a wise choice, as it keeps a foot firmly on the ground for this story, which

otherwise is the stuff of teen (well, and grown women’s) dreams. At once, Cousin’s Beach floats in a world of endless youth, governed by free spirited and encouraging maternal figures who rule distantly from deck-chairs as they sip Pina Coladas. But at the same time, loss and decay are pervasive, hovering on the horizon like rain clouds. As the teenagers stand on the endless beach reveling in their forever loves, inside the house, behind the drawn drapes, real death and despair await.     

The love triangle: it’s worn territory, to be sure. There’s a distinct whiff of Wuthering Heights coming from the pages of Summer, the first volume in a Trilogy. Who can’t list at least half a dozen angsty, fictional love triangles off the top of their heads, let alone the current, dominating vampiric blockbuster? But with seemingly effortless skill, from a story we all know so well, Han has created something truly special and unique. The first person voice is flawless, clear and believable. The flashbacks are timed perfectly and woven through the present to give the reader a greater understanding of the characters and the weight of history that exists between them. The tension and heat that Han builds between the characters trembles with intensity. 

From the very first page, a goose bump-inducing little amuse bouche of a flash forward, Han owns her reader. There’s no way to explain exactly what it is that makes this book so superb, except to say go read it.  It’s the sort of book that you’ll cancel plans with your friends for.

© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012

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