Thursday, October 29, 2009

She Feels Pretty, Oh So Pretty...Sometimes, Anyhow.

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han
4Q 4P; J/S

I finished this book two+ months ago, and details have faded, so I'm sure I'll forget to mention things I thought about at the time, and some of them will probably be important aspects of the book. It doesn't mean I didn't recognize those things. It just means I have to stop being lazy and procrastinating about writing until I get to the point where I've forgotten what I wanted to say!

For as long as Belly can remember, her summers have been spent at the beach with her mother, brother Stephen, and Susannah and her boys, Conrad and Jeremiah. Belly has always been the tag-along, wishing she could be a part of the boys' fun but always being just a little bit outside of it. She and Jeremiah are best buddies, but Belly knows that if the older boys invite him to come along, Jeremiah will go running. Stephen doesn't want his pain-in-the-neck kid sister hanging around, and Conrad doesn't even to seem to notice her most of the time. This is the way it's always been, and while she doesn't like it, she's used to it. But Belly lives for those rare moments when Conrad doesn't look right past her - those moments when he sees right into her and they connect in that special way that only she and he can. This is the summer she's turned pretty. Or so everyone says. So is this the summer that Conrad will finally notice her?

The beach house is the place where all her happiest memories were born. This summer, though, things have a different feel. Something isn't right. Susannah, who is always there to greet them with a big hug, doesn't come down to meet them when they arrive. Jeremiah seems a little distracted. And Conrad seems to be doing everything he can to pull away from them all. There are unspoken things hanging in the air. Belly can feel things coming to an end, and she can't bear the thought of losing her perfect summers.

The only thing Belly would like to change is her relationship with Conrad. But that doesn't seem likely to happen, what with the distance he's keeping and the new girl he's hanging around with. Maybe she should look elsewhere. Jeremiah? She and Jeremiah have always shared a special friendship, and she can tell he wants more.There's also Cameron, the boy she meets at her first real teenage party. Her mind boggles when he tells her he's liked her ever since he first saw her (eighth grade!) at a Latin convention. Back then she had a retainer and glasses, and she was hardly pretty. From the way he's looking at her, Cameron definitely thinks she's pretty now. Things are changing so fast for her. She doesn't know how to deal with this flirting business. She doesn't know how to deal with boys now that they are looking at her in that new way. She doesn't know how to deal with Cam and Jeremiah getting all over-protective and proprietary when they see her with another guy.  Things were so much easier before!

Unsaid things and love, unrequited and otherwise, all add up to make another summer Belly will always remember.


I loved this book. I loved Belly. Even when you've been looking forward (or impatiently pushing ahead) to the moment when people start seeing you as a woman instead of a little girl, when it actually starts happening and you're forced to create and react to that new mindset, it's disorienting and a little scary. Han does a beautiful job of painting all those confusing, conflicting, exhilarating emotions and thoughts. I also loved the family feeling. It was easy to understand how much Belly looked forward to her summers, because I felt at home and comfortable the moment she got to the beach house. It made me wish I could hang out with the boys and Susannah and be a part of it. (Or maybe it just reminds me of my own childhood, since I can really relate to being the only girl in a bunch of boys!)

Every now and then we're treated to a brief vignette from an earlier summers. This really worked for me. It's like adding an underlay of color to make the tones of the present-day scenes that much richer and deeper.

This is not a major deal for me, but still, it's something I thought about throughout the book. I speak from experience here - there's no way a teenage girl is going to introduce herself to a cute teenage boy as "Belly". As a nickname, "Belly" is embarrassing enough, especially at that age. But when you factor in all the rhymes for it, the cringe factor goes sky high. Who would willingly risk being called "Smelly Belly"? No, Belly is the family nickname she reveals when she knows that this is a guy she trusts and wants to let into her world, not the name she gives when she first meets him.

Choosing between the nice guy and the edgier guy who needs you is a classic dilemma. There are those who love the Heathcliff-Cathy dynamic and those who prefer an Anne-Gilbert love story. Warning: What follows is a spoiler, so highlight the space below only if you're curious and don't mind knowing a piece of the ending. I'm still not convinced Belly wound up with the right guy. We're conditioned to root for the match up between the angsty guy and the oh-so-caring girl, but what makes us think the guy is going to become less angsty as time goes on? Are we supposed to think her love will turn his world from clouds and skunks to sunshine and roses? Do we really want her to spend months or years tiptoeing around the guy, always concentrating on what will make *him* happy at the probable expense of her own growth and desires? Don't get me wrong...Conrad's not a bad guy. But he's so wrapped up in his own issues that I wonder how much he can spare for Belly right now. Personally, I think a relationship with Jeremiah has more potential for happiness than a relationship with his handsome-but-tortured brother. Count me in the Anne-Gilbert camp.


For me, it was almost like winter didn't count. Summer was what mattered. My whole life was measured in summers. Like I don't really begin living until June, until I'm at that beach, in that house. (p. 5)

[Conrad] had a smirky kind of mouth, and I always found myself staring at it. Smirky mouths make you want to kiss them, to smooth them out and kiss the smirkiness away. Or maybe not away...but you want to control it somehow. Make it yours. It was exactly what I wanted to do with Conrad. Make him mine. (p. 5)

The moment when she starts believing she really has turned pretty:
They didn't even notice me walk up at first. But then they did. They really did. Conrad gave me a quick glance-over the way boys do at the mall. He had never looked at me like that before in my whole life. Not once. ...Jeremiah, on the other hand, did a double take. All of this happened in the span of about three seconds, but it felt much, much longer. (p.8)

He jerked away from her, almost by accident. Susannah didn't seem to notice, but I did. I always noticed Conrad. (p.23)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What I Read and How It Felt So True

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell
5Q 4P; J/S/A

It's 1946, the war is over, and life is beginning to get back to normal. For Evie, that means her stepfather Joe is home, Bev, her mother, can stop working, and Evie can just relax and enjoy being a young teenaged girl. While her best friend is boy crazy and ready to jump into romance, Evie's not interested yet. She lives in the knowledge that her mother is gorgeous and that she will never be able to attract a man's attention the way her mother can. All that changes when Joe impulsively decides the family should take a vacation in Florida.

They soon discover that summer is the off-season in Florida. They're practically the only people in their hotel, other than the Graysons...and Peter. While Joe quickly gets involved in business dealings with Mr. Grayson, it's Peter who captures Evie's attention. He's a young, handsome, utterly charming war veteran. They first connect when Peter finds Evie hiding in the shadows of the pool after being bitterly disappointed by an "is that all there is?" experience at her first real dance. Peter invites her to dance, and Evie is smitten. This is a man. This is a dance. She can't stop thinking about him, and for the first time, she understands what all this talk of boys and love really means. In the days that follow, she finds (makes!) every opportunity to spend time with Peter. And it's not her imagination - he seems to be seeking her out, too. He takes her for drives and to the movies. And sure, they often take her mother along, but that's just for cover. It's Evie that Peter is interested in.

Evie begins to blossom. She's been so sure for so long that she will never be as pretty or enticing as her mother is. But Peter doesn't seem to feel that way. And Mrs. Grayson takes her shopping to buy her clothes that are a far cry from the little girl dresses her mother always buys her, and Evie can't help realizing that she can do these grown-up dresses justice. Peter notices, too. The kisses he gives her are not the kisses you give a little girl.

But things take a darker turn when Evie realizes that Joe doesn't like Peter and doesn't trust him. Peter says they spent time together during the war, but Joe doesn't want to talk about it. There are hints, whispers, suggestions that there is more going on here than meets the eye, that Peter's presence at the hotel isn't mere coincidence. Peter seems to know something that Joe wants kept a secret. Joe and Evie's mother begin to fight, and Evie realizes that one of the things that they're fighting over is Peter and his relationship with her mother. Well, that's ridiculous. All those times that she and Bev and Peter went to the movies and out for a drive or to restaurants, they brought Bev along so nobody would give Peter a hard time for spending time with a girl her age. It's Evie that Peter is interested in. Isn't it?

Joe, Evie's mother, and Peter charter a boat and take it out on the open sea just as a hurricane starts up along the coast. Only Joe and Bev come home alive.

What really happened out on that boat, and why did it happen? It's not just Evie who wants to know. So do the police, the judge, the jury, and the tabloid reporters. And Evie has to decide what to tell them. What did she see, and how does she lie?


It's easy to see why this book won the 2008 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. I'm awfully glad I wasn't on the award committe, because it was up against some wonderful books : Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharpe (just realized I have an unfinished post on this spectacular book), The Underneath by Kathy Appel (which I haven't read and don't have in our Teen collection), and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (I never uploaded my post on this one, either). I would never have been able to choose a winner, though I know my vote would have gone to either Anderson, Tharp, or Blundell. All three books feature exceptional writing about characters dealing with heartbreaking situations, and they all really moved me.

Blundell does a beautiful job capturing the joys and miseries of leaving girlhood and innocence behind. I'm writing this up over a month after finishing the book, and as I try to write and capture what I felt so many weeks ago, the feeling of being pulled and stretched is what keeps coming back to me. Evie is reaching for something that seems at first to be just out of her grasp. Then it's in her hands, but yanked away so that she has to chase after it again. I picture her being pulled and stretched in all directions, at first welcoming the feeling, but then being stretched so far it's painful, wanting to pull back to her comfort zone but unable to do it. I wanted to shield her from the pain I knew was coming, and I wanted to give her support when she faced the hard decisions with her new-found and hard-won maturity. Evie's growth is a masterpiece of writing.

Though I'm focusing here on the girl-becomes-woman aspect, there's a lot going on in this book beyond that. Guilt and innocence come up again and again in various situations. There's food for thought on every page.

What I Saw and How I Lied is begging to be made into a movie. (Please, would-be producers, don't cast Dakota Fanning in it! This one needs a Jena Malone/Evan Rachel Wood/Clare Danes type.)


I loved these for the vividness of the descriptions, the traces of humor from a serious person in a very serious book, and the perfectly captured moments of stepping out of childhood and into adulthood.

...every time I saw a palm tree it was a little shock, like life was yelling in my ear that this was me, and it was really happening. (p. 113)

Mom took golf lessons, which proved tome how much a place can change you, because Mom's old idea of exercise was crossing her legs. (p. 119)

I don't know when it happened, but things started to turn, just a little bit, like when you smell the bottle of milk, and you know it's going to be sour tomorrow, but you pour it on your cereal anyway. (p. 119)

Squandered virtue was a sin, Margie told me. But she had eight kids in her family. It seemed to me that her mother squandered her virtue all over the place. (p. 121)

I wanted to of music, of dances, of falling in love and getting married before he shipped overseas. And the songs - (italics) I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places(/italics) - all that longing, all that waiting. It made sense to me now. Every lyric. It wasn't about just hearing it on the radio. The strings were stretched and quivering and going crazy inside me. If Peter and I had met during the war, would we have gotten engaged? Would things have moved faster? I knew girls who were pre-engaged at school. I used to laugh at their smugness. Now I wanted it. Time rushed at me like a subway, all air and heat. (p. 129)

I could have fought her. I could have taken what I knew about what he felt and thrown it at her, proved I was an adult now, just like her. But feeling grown up? I discovered something right then: It comes and it goes. I was still afraid of my mom. (p. 153)

I saw wanting in Wally's eyes. Now I could recognize it as easy as Margie waving at me across Hillside Avenue. What would happen if I got hold of that want and rode it like a raft to see where it could take me? Joe had left me behind like a kid. I didn't want to be a kid. (p. 171)

I didn't know where [Mom] had put her pizzazz. Maybe she had squashed it in that little lace-trimmed pocket of her dress. (p. 232)