Now, she stopped what she was doing and looked at me. "Do you understand how insane you sound right now? How could your whole life be so different in less than twenty-four hours?"
"Because that's the way it is around here," I told her. "Nothing happens for ages, and then all the changes come at once."
"Not that fast," she grumbled.
"Well, then, maybe I'm just actually having a summer," I offered. "You know, a big one where Things Actually Happen. Hey, it's like I'm a tourist or something!"
Author: Sarah Dessen
From Goodreads: Luke is the perfect boyfriend: handsome, kind, fun. He and Emaline have been together all through high school in Colby, the beach town where they both grew up. But now, in the summer before college, Emaline wonders if perfect is good enough.
Enter Theo, a super-ambitious outsider, a New Yorker assisting on a documentary film about a reclusive local artist. Theo's sophisticated, exciting, and, best of all, he thinks Emaline is much too smart for Colby.
Emaline's mostly-absentee father, too, thinks Emaline should have a bigger life, and he's convinced that an Ivy League education is the only route to realizing her potential. Emaline is attracted to the bright future that Theo and her father promise. But she also clings to the deep roots of her loving mother, stepfather, and sisters. Can she ignore the pull of the happily familiar world of Colby?
Emaline wants the moon and more, but how can she balance where she comes from with where she's going?
Sarah Dessen's devoted fans will welcome this story of romance, yearning, and, finally, empowerment. It could only happen in the summer.
Notes: The contrast of small town and big city is a common theme in fiction, and Sarah Dessen sets it up here in the context of one teenager's relationships. Relationships are Dessen's great strength as a writer, and I loved how much of the aforementioned contrast she managed to put in simply by thoughtfully portraying personality, conflict, and connection.
It's always something to write up when the adults in a teen novel are decent, loving people, and Emaline's mom and dad—her dad, not her father; to Emaline, those are different men—are flawed but fantastic. They're on the small-town side of things; the dad because he's a hardworking construction guy with a passion for home improvement, and the mom because she made a bad choice at eighteen and wound up with Emaline. The stepsisters provide a sort of Cinderella dynamic to the family, albeit not such a mean-spirited one. And whereas the stepmother is the usual Cinderella villain, in this case there's a stepfather, and he's the good guy. Emaline's real father is the one to wreak havoc upon her emotions.
The usual Cinderella tale also contains a prince to raise the heroine from a life of drudgery to greatness, but I won't spoil the end of the story here. The prince's stand-in, Theo, is the center of the big-city half of the contrast, at least as its advocate. By ordinary inclination, I do prefer the tall, scholarly, lightly dorky type of guy over the hunky, shirtless poolside boy that is the presumed standard of all hotness, but I could never quite get fond of Theo. His arrogance about artistic symbolism was the worst of him; fond as I am of literary symbolism, interpretation absolutely must come with humility. At the very least, it must come with the understanding that it's a personal take on the work rather than an infallible reading of artistic intent. In the case of the novel's less-than-perfect romances, Luke, the pool boy, with all his faults and bad choices, was the better man.
Here it seems worth noting that while the novel's marketing (the Goodreads synopsis, for instance) suggests that Emaline is torn between small town life and sophistication, the impression I got throughout was of her rejection of the superlative lifestyle, of the need to have The Best—emphasis hers—of everything. She herself is of the small town, and over and over again, she recognizes something in the city folk that she reasonably disapproves: the arrogance, the disproportionate value system, the way untamed ambition sets parents against children and children against parents, even the limitation of experience. Big city characters and life choices do not go entirely without redemption for the most part, however, and part of the story's goal is to allow Emaline to take some part in that life without losing her roots and herself.
A lot of the core beauty of story and theme was situated in relationships that Emaline only facilitated—the conflict and resolution between Clyde and Ivy, for instance. Clyde is one of the best characters in the novel, certainly one of the wisest, and his climactic response to Ivy made for one of my favorite scenes.
The other non-Emaline-centric beauty that struck me was the incongruous relationship between Daisy and Morris. From its chastity to its artistry to its humility to its inspirational strength, it's a lovely thing. It's a more compelling romance than either of Emaline's.
Parents may wish to note that Emaline herself has no concern for chastity. There is at least one bedroom scene that I recall, though it isn't detailed.
While the story isn't quite as romantic overall as the marketing might suggest, in itself it's a hopeful thing. The heart of the book is in family and friendship, and in powerful little reconciliations between things like dreaming and grounding, potential and realization, and love of home and love of the world beyond. For that, it's really a pleasant read.