TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
"Shug" author Jenny Han's newest book is "The Summer I Turned Pretty." I have to be honest, I was pretty disappointed in this one, and I loved "Shug." Maybe my expectations were just too high, or any summer-themed novel for girls pales in comparison to Sarah Dessen's fabulous "Along for the Ride," which I just read and reviewed. I wish I knew why, but I never felt much of a connection to either the characters or the story here.
Belly, her obnoxious older brother Steven, and her mom spend each summer at the expansive beach house of mom's best friend, Susannah, and her two sons, the complicated, aloof Conrad and the outgoing, friendly Jeremiah. The story primarily involves Belly's 16th summer (the one where she, you know, turns pretty – heh), and how her relationship with the guys changes as the months pass. Belly's always had a fierce crush on Conrad, who is a few years older than her and has never seemed to notice her much. She and Jeremiah, who are closer in age, have always been best friends, laughing and swimming together, but even he excludes Belly from lots of "guys-only" fun. Now that Belly's got the goods, looks-wise, both Conrad and Jeremiah are no longer seeing her as Steven's pesky little sister, complicating Belly's life in ways both good and bad. It takes her ages to realize that maybe dreamy Conrad might actually have a thing for her and that's why he's acting like such a total jerk, which, I suspect, most readers will clue in on pretty quickly.
Scenes from other summers of Belly's life are interspersed throughout the novel, which is a lovely way to help us understand the current relationship dynamics. There's a great flashback to a night when Conrad takes a young Belly out to the boardwalk; Belly is crushed and then rather brave and honorable upon realizing she's only there to break the ice with a cute arcade worker. And I liked how Belly found her own summer boyfriend, smart guy Cam, and used him to figure out what she's really looking for and how far she'll go when she finds it. That felt honest and authentic to me, the uncertainty of that relationship's boundaries, especially when Belly couldn't stop herself from using Cam to make Conrad jealous.
What I didn't like as much were the inconsistencies and empty characterizations. I never felt as if we got to know Steven at all, and then he completely disappeared from the story. Okay. But I also felt the same way about the brothers, almost as if they were a list of traits and disjointed actions rather than living, breathing people. For example, the brothers start acting crazy protective of Belly when she meets Cam at a keg party, dogging her everywhere she turns, only to ignore it completely when she goes with him to a drive-in movie (!) the very next night. And where were the boys' friends? Conrad and Jeremiah are repeatedly presented as two popular, athletic, handsome, all-American guys. They don't have any true friends from home or from the beach community itself? Really? In an era of instant communication — text, IM, email, cell — no one stays in touch over the summer? For me, that sense of isolation from the "real world" was a problem, as was the continual distance I felt from both brothers.
There's a whole subplot here about Susannah and her personal struggles, but since we only see brief glimpses of her before she runs out on errands with Belly's mom, I never felt invested in her story. [Total side note, but this is how I know I'm getting old — I kept wondering who pays for all this free time at the beach. Jeremiah's lifeguarding job must bring in the big bucks!]
Overall, "The Summer I Turned Pretty" is good, but not great. There are better summer novels out there, but there's nothing offensively wrong with this one. I was put off by the false moments and the fact that the characters always remained at arms' length from me. Other readers might be more willing to overlook these flaws, which is fine. We're all different! If you read this one, I'd say it's aimed directly at girls heading into high school. There's some strong language peppered throughout and several drinking scenes as well, swinging it toward an older age group. While I was disappointed, I hope you'll enjoy this one more than I did!