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)

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