Book Review: The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han
The Summer I Turned Pretty is the first book in a YA series that by all accounts, seems to be well-loved and incredibly popular.
It’s your typical teenage love-triangle set against a pretty backdrop of sea, sun and sand, and not a whole lot else. With these types of books, when we all know what’s going to happen, it’s the characters and dialogue that really make the story.
It’s a pity then, that I so intensely disliked Isabel.
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 terrible and wonderful summer, the more everything changes, the more it all ends up just the way it should have been all along.
Isabel was, to put it bluntly, a brat. (Other words I came to associate with her included, but were not limited to: dull, spoilt, petulant, willfully ignorant, entitled little… madam.)
The moment Conrad, the elder boy-next-door is described, it’s so very obvious where this is all going, but it will still take three books to get there. And that’s great… if you enjoy the books. Sadly, I really, really didn’t. Conrad is the brother Isabel (sorry, but I simply refuse to call her Belly) has been
obsessed in love with since she was ten. The dark-haired, soulful, guitar-playing one. Great at everything without even trying and who, interestingly, shows no apparent interest in Isabel for most of the book. His younger brother, Jeremiah doesn’t stand a chance really. Needless to say, I actually liked him better, although it’s a shame his character is never really developed beyond the designated lighthearted best friend. Perhaps it’s for the best, Jeremiah, when all’s said and done. I sense some painful times ahead for you.
I can totally see why this series is such a hit — what teenage girl doesn’t dream of suddenly morphing into a natural beauty, not to mention having all these hot guys fighting over you? But as an older reader, hearing over and over and over again how Isabel has ‘blossomed’ overnight quickly started to grate. It annoyed me that all anyone has to say about Isabel is related to her good looks. It irritated me that Isabel doesn’t have any hobbies, friends, aspirations, or life outside of the two months she spends at Cousin Beach. I disliked her attitude and her mooning over Conrad. And I absolutely hated how she played one brother of the other.
Thankfully and rather refreshingly, Han doesn’t feel the need to give one brother the typical bad-boy persona in this love-triangle. The natural choice would be Conrad, but in reality, he and Isabel barely interact, we just constantly hear about him courtesy of you-know-who. It’s almost painful to read really. Isabel acts as though they are in a romantic relationship when really it’s all in her head. She’s like a possessive, slightly crazy, ex-girlfriend. At one point, Conrad tells her, quite rightly, that there is no way that she, a 15-year-old kid, is leaving a party alone in the car of some strange guy that none of them even know. Isabel, in response, promptly throws a tantrum and literally screams insults at him and the girl he is talking to at the time. Conrad doesn’t treat Isabel badly, he treats her like she is: a whiney kid. Because, sadly, that’s all this girl does. Obsess and sulk.
Isabel is, I suppose, a stereotypical portrayal of a teenager. Incredibly young, naive, hormonal and completely self-absorbed. I imagine some readers will feel sorry for her, perhaps relate to how she is feeling, that first major crush, the pains of growing up etc. I couldn’t. I just didn’t like her. Isabel may well grow up a lot in the next two books, but I don’t have the patience or the inclination to watch this girl manipulate these two guys any further, going back and forth between them and probably forever damaging their relationship as brothers in the process. (There was also a third guy, Cam, who was far too nice and intelligent to deserve to be treated the way he was.)
The highlight of the book, for me, was the friendship between Susannah and Isabel’s mother. I loved how close they were, the way they confided their hardships and marriage problems in one another, how they would get away from life for a little while every summer to connect with themselves and each other, no men allowed. It was interesting seeing their relationship through Isabel’s eyes and I felt Han captured their bond very well. I just wish the story had focused on this aspect instead of being all about teenage angst.
I didn’t hate The Summer I Turned Pretty, but I’d be lying if I thought it was good storytelling. It wasn’t until I had finished reading, that it occurred to me just how little there is to this book, and just how much I disliked the main character. Do I recommend it? No. Though I suppose it’s a reasonable enough choice for a summer beach read, if you’re not the kind to be put off by a lack of real plot (which the constant backwards and forwards timeline couldn’t disguise), underdeveloped or underused characters or a worn-out, cliché, set up. But really, why bother, when there are so much more engaging and fun, summer-romance books out there to be read?