It's funny how one summer can change everything. It must be something about the heat and the smell of chlorine, fresh-cut grass and honeysuckle, asphalt sizzling after late-day thunderstorms, the steam rising while everything drips around it. Something about long, lazy days and whirring air conditioners and bright plastic flip-flops from the drugstore thwacking down the street. Something about fall being so close, another year, another Christmas, another beginning. So much in one summer, stirring up like the storms that crest at the end of each day, blowing out all the heat and dirt to leave everything gasping and cool. Everyone can reach back to one summer and lay a finger to it, finding the exact point when everything changed. That summer was mine.
Author: Sarah Dessen
Synopsis: Haven McPhail is set for the worst summer of her life, including two weddings: her father's to the woman he left his family for, and her sister's to the unexciting Lewis, who seems to turn feisty Ashley into something spineless and tame. To make matters worse, Haven has grown to nearly six feet tall at fifteen. When she runs into her favorite of Ashley's ex-boyfriends, Sumner Lee, she can't help recalling the summer when everything seemed perfect—her father loved her mother, Sumner made Ashley come alive, and Haven's relationships with all of them came easily. In the summer of painful changes, Haven comes to grips with the past and the future.
Notes: For a long time, I've planned on picking up a Sarah Dessen book. She's a fantastic writer. When I think of the best YA writers today, in terms of evocative prose, I think Neil Gaiman, John Green, and Sarah Dessen (I haven't yet read all of their competition, but still.)
This book was her debut, and it captures a Southern summer at every turn of phrase—the heat, the flowers, the brief transitional freedom, that delight that can never quite be grasped.
Introspective fifteen-year-old Haven was particularly easy for me to identify with, making first-person narration an unexpected joy to read. Haven and I also have height in common, which made me understand her in a very rare way. The comments from everyone, the pokes in the back as reminder to stand up straight, the slouching and folding up into smaller form—I knew of it all, and sympathized. Likewise, her self-comparing to her sister. In fact, I could have accepted more of this from her. For me, height comparison is something that at her age I noticed with most people very quickly, especially men or very short women. I would have expected the several inches' difference between her and Sumner to stand out to her right away.
Height is just one of Haven's difficulties, however, and I sympathized strongest with her central feeling: that longing for The Time When Life Was Perfect, and her clinging to the one link she has left. I understood it, especially in the context of summer.
Is it true that "everyone can reach back to one summer and lay a finger to it, finding the exact point when everything changed"? I'm not sure. If I don't limit it to my teens, the summer of 2003 was one such moment for me, and the winter of 2004 another. But I certainly think summer works as a time of metaphoric change and clarity.
Just one advisory: there's a bit of swearing in the book. More than I would have read at fifteen, when I was more strongly concerned over such things, but nowhere near as much as Catcher in the Rye.
Recommendation: Read it with a glass of lemonade, and maybe wear some flip-flops for good measure.