The Summer of

Skinny Dipping

By Amanda Howells

Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen  

Recommended for: Frankly, no one, but if you must, 13 and Up

One Word Summary: False

Nothing can save a book whose characters don’t ring true, and that’s sadly the fate of  The Summer of Skinny Dipping. Not a glossy location like The Hamptons, not a frighteningly accelerated summer romance, not a bunch of ‘cool’ kids raiding the liquor cabinet and posing as cardboard cutouts of every parent and After School Special’s worst nightmare of youth gone awry. There’s a riptide out there alright, but it has less to do with sea currents and more to do with disingenuous dialogue and broad brushed stereotypes that pull this book down to the murky depths.  

Mia is 16 and spending another summer with her parents and little sister at the Hamptons summer home of her wealthy aunt, uncle, and cousin Corinne. Mia and Corinne had always been best friends during the summer, and managed to keep the relationship up during the school year, in spite of the fact that Corinne lives in New York City and Mia’s from Georgia.  But as soon as her family arrives, Mia can tell that something has changed. Most notably, Corinne has turned into some kind of Cosmopolitan Magazine inspired social zombie, spouting nauseating slang, smoking cigarettes, screaming at her mom, and doing

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all the things you might quickly jot down on a piece of paper if someone asked you to list traits of an obnoxious and snobby teenager. We’re meant to believe that she wasn’t like this before, but we’ll just have to take Mia’s word for the fact that she’s gone through some sort of abrupt soul lobotomy in the last few months.

Worse than Corinne is her crowd of hip friends. All the children of the Hamptons elite swill about with fancy clothes and vacant attitudes, and Mia feels completely out of place. She’s not nearly as trendy as the other girls, isn’t into drinking or smoking, and has nothing to talk about with all the rich kids who seem only to talk about nothing. But one night at a party, Mia meets an odd fellow in retro clothes named Simon who prattles on about The Great Gatsby and how hollow all the rich kids are, in spite of the fact that he and his family are currently renting the mansion next door, and he briskly wins Mia’s purportedly reluctant heart. Most of her nights are spent sneaking out of her bedroom window, poised conveniently over a trellis (when will parents ever learn, don’t put anything with foot holds beneath your teenager’s window) and

swimming au naturale in the ocean with Simon who talks a lot about ‘letting go’ and ‘just living in the moment’ and other clichéd one-liners that have been getting teenagers pregnant for centuries.

It’s tempting to criticize Mia for making blanket judgments about all individuals with money, but Amanda Howells seems be the guiltier party, depicting every single person who is neither Mia nor Simon, nor Mia’s ho-hum simple dad who, aw-shucks, just owns a humble hardware store, as a predictable, pretentious bore. But with Simon uttering phrases like “You should try night swimming sometime. It washes away all of your sins” and his explanation of what he does during his sun-shunning days as “Listen to music. Paint. I mess around with oils. I like the light, but I like to see it from a shady place. Under a tree. Or sitting in my bay window…I can really see myself next year just drifting, in search of soft light. Going to Italy, sitting in cafes and painting,” his eye-rolling at all the elitist artifice is a little hard to stomach.

It’s just far too convenient that every single one of these privileged teens are superficial and arrogant, giving Mia the chance to look nuanced and sensitive with her body-image problems and willingness to date a boy from the wrong side of the tracks (and the wrong side of the tracks is where exactly, East Hampton? If Howells really wanted to go there, couldn’t Simon have been a waiter at a country club, just there for summer work?) The cookie-cutter stereotyping of the wealthy smacks only of laziness, and all the waffling about class distinction and the conflict between Mia’s desires to fit and ‘just be herself’, to use the vapid and erratic Corrine’s often used term, is “tedious”.

There are just too many departures from plausibility in this story to give it any kind of grounding. Really? Mia’s been sneaking out of her bedroom window every night in a house containing seven other people, and no one noticed once? Really? Simon steals his father’s treasured yellow convertible on several occasions to go joy riding with Mia and no one in his house is alerted by the sound of an engine firing up outside? Really? Two sets of parents can leave a herd of entitled teenagers alone in the house for an unchaperoned, yet lavishly catered rager with an unlocked liquor cabinet, not once, but twice, and still have the nerve to come home and act surprised when they find all the kids are drunk? I don’t know who is more naïve, the parents, or Howells for believing that the reader will go with the notion that all six parents, Mia’s, Corinne’s and Simon’s, could have their heads buried that deep in the sand.

And then there is the ending.  In real life you can look at sudden, violent deaths and say “What a senseless tragedy” and content yourself with the cruel randomness of life. Unfortunately in fiction, there is an architect crafting the fate of the characters, whose name is emblazoned right on the front cover, and when an ill-fitting, disproportionately dramatic and quickly leapt-to climax stops the story in its tracks, leaving all of the previously developed plot threads that we’ve been unraveling for the last 250 pages to just flap in the wind with no resolution, there is someone to blame. A sad denouement for Mia, indeed, but to the reader it comes as mercifully as euthanasia.

© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012

Teen Romance