“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 wonderful and terrible summer, the more everything changes, the more it all ends up just the way it should have been all along.”
Han’s The Summer I Turned Pretty tops the list of most requested books by my teen patrons by a country mile. Their interest, prompted by enthusiastic word-of-mouth promotion, proved to be contagious, leading me to purchase a copy to determine what the fuss was about. That infectious curiosity coupled with the warm, fuzzy feeling a spate of recently released YA contemporary fiction titles provoked in me upon thinking of them meant I settled on my couch, book in hand, with high hopes. The longer I read, however, the more baffled I became.
Not twenty pages in and it was a chore to turn to the next one. But I did. I kept turning them, partly because I was determined to understand what so many other readers saw in the story, the characters, and leveling a judgment on either based on a paltry number of pages wasn’t fair; and also with the lingering hope that the tide would turn and I’d fall in line with the positive response I’d run headlong into since the book’s release. I’m sorry to say that just didn’t happen.
I cannot recall the last time I encountered a character as grating as Belly. Immature and contrary, Belly inevitably responded to the changes that go hand in hand with getting older by sticking her tongue out or pouting, which she herself readily admits to doing: “And, okay, maybe I did pout a lot, but it was the only way I could ever get my way.” (If you’re wondering if perhaps that self-awareness somehow made her behavior more acceptable to me, no, it didn’t. Because there was no move to grow, to move beyond adolescent behavior and prove that she was no longer the child she was convinced everyone else saw her as.) As I read, I began to actively track certain responses, which illustrates, to my mind, how one could easily become annoyed with Belly, but also the considerable amount of repetition in the text.
The following examples only account for those that I could easily recall the location of to backtrack to and record.
Belly exhibiting a woe-is-me attitude, bemoaning the fact that the boys – Conrad, Jeremiah and her brother, Steven – left her out of their fun:
Pg 17: “Even though it was one of the only times I was included in their fun…and it was a reminder that I was an outsider…”
Pg 26: “…but it was feeling different, like an outsider, that I hated.”
Pg. 28: “Everybody had somebody but me.”
Pg. 197: “Why was it that even when I had my own friend I still felt left out of their club?”
I’d like to note here, before moving on, that in this case I wanted to sympathize with Belly. But her desire to be included didn’t seem to stem from true loneliness or a sense of saddening isolation so much as from anger at not being included when she thought she should or deserved to be. The kind of anger that would make a child stomp his or her foot, kicking up playground sand in the process, and then retreat, arms crossed, to the sidelines. More concisely, Belly wasn’t getting her way and she didn’t like it, which often led to my next point.
Belly, the tattletale:
Pg 17: “I used to cry about it, run to Susannah and my mother…The boys just accused me of being a tattletale.”
Pg. 29: “Quickly I said, ‘Steven, if you don’t let me go, I’ll tell mom.’ Steve’s face twisted. ‘No, you won’t. Mom hates it when you tattletale.’…I’d lost my chance. Now I just looked like a tattletale, a baby.”
Pg. 101: “‘Leave me alone,’ I said defiantly. ‘You can’t hurt me or I’ll tell Mom.’”
Pg. 184: “I’m telling Jeremiah.”
I’ve already mentioned her propensity for sticking her tongue out:
Pg. 204: “I scooped out a chunk of watermelon and stuck my tongue out at his retreating figure.”
Pg. 207: “I stuck my tongue out at him and spread out my towel on a lounge chair not too far away.”
Pg. 224: “‘You can’t. It’s my birthday.’ I stuck my tongue out at him.”
It extends beyond those examples with more of the same, but also other actions and thoughts that made me grit my teeth; made it impossible for me to relate to Belly, or want to continue with her story. But, again, I did. Why? Well, there’s the fair shake thing, but there’s also the fact that in the back of my mind was the knowledge that other book bloggers had expressed delight in the romantic interest, and I thought, okay, maybe I’ll warm to him and the romance will sweep me off my feet before all is said and done. And, once more, that did not happen.
Shortly before the 200 page mark, Belly thinks of Conrad: “He made it so hard not to love him. When he was sweet like this, I remembered why I did. Used to love him, I mean. I remembered everything.” After reading that, I set the book down on my lap, combed my memory and thought for sure that there must be a hole in it, because I couldn’t remember Conrad being anything but surly and borderline rude to Belly (during the summer she turned pretty and all the ones that came before it). And in case you were wondering what prompted the line of thought above, it was “Good night, Bells.” Basically, common courtesy and a single, sentimental consonant; that’s all it took to engender an intense infatuation. Conrad’s appeal completely and unfortunately eluded me.
It’s odd, how radically different my experience with The Summer I Turned Pretty was from most everyone else’s, but it proves the adage ‘every book its reader.’ This particular book just wasn’t meant for me.