Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Book Review: The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han

I'm just going to say it now but I do NOT usually read books that fall under the category of "chick-lit".  It's not that I have anything against shopaholics, or cocktail parties or summer romances, but these kinds of books usually annoy the heck out of me.  The protagonists are often weak and/or bratty which makes them completely unsympathetic and unlikeable.  Their lives usually revolve around the pursuit of a boyfriend which makes the feminist in me cringe.  And from a literary standpoint, the prose leaves much to be desired.  

The reason I gave The Summer I Turned Pretty a try was because my friend and I were making fun of it earlier.  We were wandering around Barnes and Noble and we spotted the cover and the title.  "Ugh, I can't wait to turn pretty this summer like these people obviously did", I said while laughing and pointing to the book cover.  My friend flipped the book over and exclaimed "Is the main character's name actually Belly?".  

It was.  And a few weeks later during a lazy summer day, I saw the book in my library and gave it a try.  I finished this book in several hours and surprisingly, I enjoyed it!  It still was not without it's flaws but it was a quick and pleasant read.

Belly measures her life in summers. Everything good, everything magical happens between the months of June and August. Winters are simply a time to count the weeks until the next summer, a place away from the beach house, away from Susannah, and most importantly, away from Jeremiah and Conrad. They are the boys that Belly has known since her very first summer–they have been her brother figures, her crushes, and everything in between. But one summer, one terrible and wonderful summer, the more everything changes, the more it all ends up just the way it should have been all along.

The Summer I Turned Pretty follows 15 year old Isabel "Belly" Conklin and her complicated relationship with Jeremiah and Conrad Fisher, two brothers with whom Belly's family stays with every summer at their beach house, along with their mother, Susannah.  

It has always been Belly's older brother, Steven, who was friends with the them while Belly has always been left out of their tight-knit "boys-only" group.  She has always been the "little sister" when all she really wanted for years was to be treated as an equal.  She has never truly been noticed... until this summer.  

Soon to be sixteen, Belly has blossomed over the year, in looks and maturity, and the two brothers look at her in a different way.  Jeremiah, the light-hearted jokester who Belly describes as being like a brother to her, starts seeing her as being someone more.  Even Conrad, the older brother who Belly has had an intense crush on for years, starts to see her in a new light.   

Naturally, a "love-triangle" arises, with Belly and her struggle to decide between the two boys she had known her entire life.  Actually, Belly does end up going out with another boy for a few weeks.  Of course, Jeremiah and Conrad do not approve.  So that would make it... a love square?  Wow, weird.  But I'm glad that there was another boy that Belly was interested in to show that she is independent/ trying to be independent of the two boys who have been such a significant part of her life.  

Belly is very likeable and her desire to be included is one that we can all relate to.  Her voice is truly that of a young girl experiencing first love.  She is not completely mature yet and can sometimes be petty, but who isn't at that age?  Even though she has clearly blossomed into a beauty, she chooses to hide it under baggy t-shirts and shorts.  She doesn't have a low self esteem like most chick-lit protagonists do which is refreshing to see, yet she doesn't flaunt her beauty and use her feminine wiles to manipulate the opposite sex.  Though it may not be clear at times with the romantic angle the author takes, Belly truly does care about the boys as friends.  While some readers may be put off by her seemingly immature ways, the character is a very accurate representation of a teenage girl.         

One surprisingly poignant aspect of the novel was the friendship between Susannah (Conrad and Jeremiah's mother) and Laurel (Belly and Steven's mother).  Girly Susannah and practical Laurel are complete opposites yet they are almost like sisters.  And Susannah's battle with breast cancer adds another whole dimension to their friendship as well as to Belly's story (since Susannah is like a second mother to her).  Although it is mentioned only secondary to all of Belly's relationships with the brothers, just the beauty of this true friendship makes the book worth reading.  Their friendship was definitely my favorite element of this novel.  

Now for the writing.  I'm not going to go and say that the prose was amazing.  Jenny Han obviously tried to make the tone and diction fit the narrator, a teenage girl.  Because of this, you get shorter, sometimes choppier sentences.  The writing should fit the genre of literature, the words flowed well and one can definitely imagine a teenage girl speaking them. 

I enjoyed the flashbacks that Han employed to document the increasingly complex relationships that Belly has with Jeremiah and Conrad.  Age 10, in love with Conrad.  Age 11, taught how to dance by Conrad.  Age 12, heart-broken by Conrad.  Age 14, first kiss with Jeremiah in a game of Truth or Dare.  Each flashback showed Belly in a different way and provided some background information which truly enriched the story.     

Overall, the story was entertaining and unique.  The characters were well-developed and different.  Belly is a protagonist worth worth listening to.  Cousin's Beach was beautifully set up and by the end of the book, readers will long to be Belly, long to have a summer like hers where anything can happen.  All of this makes The Summer I Turned Pretty stand out among all the summer romance books you will inevitably see crowding the shelves this summer.    

Final Rating- 4/5



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