Belly measures her life in summers. Everything good, everything magical happens between the months of June and August. Winters are simply a time to count the weeks until the next summer, a place away from the beach house, away from Susannah, and most importantly, away from Jeremiah and Conrad. They are the boys that Belly has known since her very first summer — they have been her brother figures, her crushes, and everything in between. But one summer, one wonderful and terrible summer, the more everything changes, the more it all ends up just the way it should have been all along.
Summer may very well be the official time time of the year for readers to bask in the glory of loosing themselves in a good book…unofficially speaking. It’s a time to set down anchor, i.e. dig your toes in the sand, and escape to another world entirely. As a top pick for YA Crush Top Ten Book Settings, Cousins Beach is not a bad place to escape to. Just ask Belly.
The Summer I Turned Pretty, It’s Not Summer Without You and We’ll Always Have Summer is the trilogy of books that takes us through important years in the life of a young girl, Belly. (Amy Han, how much do I love this nickname for Isabel? Let me count the ways.) Belly is a young girl who has always been “shadow” to the group of boys, her brother Steven, and their family friends Conrad and Jeremiah (a.k.a. the Fisher boys) during the summers they spend together at the Fisher summer home on Cousins Beach. Susannah (Jeremiah and Conrad’s mother, a.k.a. Beck) is Laurel’s (Belly’s mom) life long best friend and each summer they take their children and spend the entire summer in a beach house which may be halfway somewhere between their two respective homes, i.e. their “real lives”. I’m not clear on locations as anything but their “summer lives” is only spoken about in passing, as if life is a pattern of time spent at Cousins Beach and the rest of the year time spent waiting for Cousins Beach. I would very likely feel this way too, if I had this rather idylic setting to go to…not to mention if Conrad and Jeremiah were waiting for me. But I am getting ahead of myself.
From the time Belly can remember, these boys (Steven, Conrad and Jeremiah) have gone out of their way to treat her like a baby and to exclude her from their summer activities as much as possible (hence the whole “shadow” thing). As you see the picture she paints of her interactions with them throughout the years – which we get glimpses of through flashbacks as well as in the present (present time being a 15-about-to-turn-16 year old Belly) – we are able to see what she can’t. That through all their “girls have cooties” mentality, these boys are struggling the fact that they like Belly as a person, as a pal, and as they get older, maybe something more. A phenomenal strength in these books is how Han has a way of allowing her character to be oblivious to things the reader can see without it being too far fetched: like a life-long brother type figure showing signs that he might just kinda, sorta like you. Maybe. But only if you like him first.
Another one for the “so-long-as-she-can-remember” list, Belly has had a monster-size crush to end all crushes for strong, silent, handsome, and somber Conrad. Dreamy, mysterious and…very much not interested in her. That’s Conrad in a nutshell. This is the picture Belly paints of Conrad who seems to think of Belly as “just a kid”, a little sister type. And, wouldn’t it make sense? After all, they’ve spent their summers together since forever!
And so, our story begins to unfold this summer when Belly is about to turn 16 and, hello, she’s looking gooooooood by the pool in da summer house. That bikini didn’t fit like that last summer! What!!?!?!? The boys are a little confused. And alarmed. And Conrad, allasudden is acting kinda like a cooooompleeeete jerkface (I seriously did NOT get Conrad for a while there, but just give him a chance friends…trust me, he’s gonna grow on you). What’s his problem anyhow? Could it be that, um, maybe that whole “little sister” thing was just a load of hooey?
And then there’s fun, sweet, total-opposite-of-Conrad, Jeremiah, Conrad’s younger brother. Jeremiah is the light to Conrad’s dark. For all Conrad’s moodiness, Jeremiah brings comic relief. He can make everyone smile, and he has a certain sweetness that’s especially sweet towards Belly though he knows — because he’s not blind — that Belly’s heart is Conrad’s. For now. (What?!?!!? I know.) So instead, he is the best buddy-type a girl could ask for. But is he really as perfectly lovely as he seems? Hmmm. Ya’ll know where this is going so can I get an “Amen”? But before we can even think of that hot mess, we have one more boy in the life of this young Belly to meet…
As any girl with a major crush on a major hottie (read: Conrad) would do, Belly starts dating some other dude (no, not Jeremiah). A perfectly nice, good looking, smart dude. His name? Cam…I think. His name’s not Conrad, and that’s all I can think about at this point. Alas, as nice as Cam is, and he is, all along she’s looking from the corner of her eye to see what up with Conrad…(inner Belly monologue: “Is he watching?”) Han writes moments such as these so well. Moments when a young girl’s own immaturity doesn’t allow her to see that as much as she says she “doesn’t care” about what her (alledgedly) former crush thinks, we know exactly what is happening. We live through Belly’s first relationship, and it’s end, with a sense of ,”Ah, I was there once”, even if you didn’t start dating a guy you met at a 4th of July BBQ at which Conrad was a huge poo head when he realized some other guy was looking at you (even if he did at some point later that night drukenly caress your hair and made you all jelly-kneed).
Navigating through to the books that follow Han takes us on a journey most authors might get tangled in but which she swims in fluidly. There are struggles any teen girl (and former teen girls) can relate to, such as boy crushes, feeling awkward in your own skin, and a deliciously torturous love triangle. Interwoven into these are harder life moments that not all of us have had to live through but which are so strongly written, the reader can’t help but feel the pain, such as divorce and father-son struggles.
One of the more beautiful branches in this story is Belly’s relationship with Conrad and Jeremiah’s mom, Susannah. Dear friends since before they had children or husbands for that matter, Laurel and Susannah echo who many of us, ahem, more mature readers may be. We’ve lived through these “Belly moments” of insecurity and feelings of awkwardness and we are arriving at a place where life is something else, perhaps something more complicated. A place where we are either the mom who is able to open up and be vulnerable (Susannah) or the one who creates a shell of strength (Laurel). And though at first glance one might think Susannah’s mothering style is the way to go, Han leaves some room for discussion. Susannah is everything Belly wishes her mom was…fun and understanding, flexible and a little kooky. In contrast Laurel is quieter, more reserved, but – though Belly can’t see it – loves her fiercely. These women are an integral part of this story and the genuine way in which they are both written makes them a true shaping force for Belly as she starts making her way into adulthood.
As we move from book to book in the “Summer…” series, we see a Belly who is quite the riddle. She personifies the contradiction we all were as adolescents: wishing things would stay the same and rebelling against them to stir up change. During this time the families go through difficult trials that test their bonds to each other, and which ultimately bring them together even closer that they first were. The journey, which includes a love triangle (I’m not going to say it out loud, but come on now, you’re way smart, I know you’ll figure out who it includes), is not an easy one but the results are certainly satisfying upon the last book’s conclusion. I’ll just say this: the Jeremiah/Conrad debate is one right up there with Peeta vs. Gale and Edward vs. Jacob. And I must add this for those friends out there who love them some love triangles: the Jeremiah vs. Conrad choice for me was not as clear cut as with these other book series (go Peeta!).
So, what could be better than a fabulous book for the summer? These books may just answer that question: THREE summer books. Especially if they are Han’s Summer books.
Crush level : 5/5 – Wonderful, wonderful and wonderful. Thoughtfully written, with toe curling moments, tear jerking moments and moments that make you laugh. These books touch on different types of love, they touch on friendship, family and life journeys. These are books that you’ll treasure. I loved them and I am looking forward to my friends’ daughters turning “just the right age” for me to gift these books to them (I’m hoping to channel a little Susannah for them). Yes, I loved them that much.