Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Book Review: Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler

Some jerk thought this book was porn and wanted it banned from his kids' school. Wow, that guy is really the opposite of the judge who says he knows porn when he sees it, because of the YA books about sex, you'd be hard pressed to find one less graphic, and where it's such a small part of the story. (Admittedly, he didn't read the book he wanted to ban. Nice.)

No, this is a book about friendship, about grieving, and about secrets. Anna is going to California with her best friend Frankie for Frankie's family's annual vacation, partly as a distraction because last summer Frankie's older brother, Matt, died in a freak accident. Frankie, who has been acting a little wild this last year, decides this summer vacation is the perfect time for Anna to have her first romance, and so if they can meet a boy a day (hence the title), they have a good shot at meeting a decent boy or two. But Frankie doesn't know that Anna's first romance was last summer -- with Matt right before he died. He hadn't had a chance to tell Frankie yet and made Anna promise not to tell her until he did, but he died first. And now Anna is stuck with this promise, not knowing which is worse, breaking it or admitting the deception to Frankie?

Meanwhile, Frankie is dealing with Matt's death unevenly. Her grades have slipped a lot, her reputation has also slipped a little, as she's become obsessed with makeup, hair, and boys. She's also worried that her parents will split up. Anna feels caught in the middle. She wants to help Frankie deal with Matt's death in whatever way best works for her, but she's not crazy about the fashion- and looks-obsessions, Frankie's sometimes reckless behavior, and of course she's always guarding again her own unwelcome secret.

Partly this book is a traditional summer vacation book, with boys and sunburns and surfing and smoothies, but it does have a dark undercurrent. And it does have a lot of questions to keep readers turning the pages. Will Frankie find out about Anna and Matt? Will she be understanding or mad? Will Frankie and Anna meet some cool boys? Will Anna lose her virginity? Will Frankie's parents divorce? Will life ever get better? Will either girl ever stop thinking about Matt all the time? When will things get back to normal? What is normal? Do they even want that?

Anna is a pretty good girl, but she does stretch those boundaries a little, particularly with the encouragement of the wilder Frankie. I do wish she had a little more personality, but she didn't feel two-dimensional or non-existent, just a little flat. I also wish the beginning part, before Matt dies, was longer. I wish we'd gotten to know him a lot better to know just what it was Frankie and Anna were missing so badly, but also so we could have gotten to know the "before" Frankie and Anna better. And Matt was a touch unrealistic - a guy who just loved to hang out with his little sister and her best friend? Who read to them long excerpts from novels? Who wrote poetic and philosophical postcards? And who didn't seem to have any negative traits aside from an unknown heart condition and bad timing?

These niggling issues aside, it was a touching book. The teenagers were well drawn, realistic (neither major nerds nor hard-core partiers), the grief felt real and Anna's quandary did feel truly like she was stuck in a lose-lose situation with the secret. It read very quickly, and I thought the ending was quite good -- it was properly set-up and appropriate. Not predictable, but at the same time what I expected as it was inevitable given the characters' personalities and the situation. That's exactly what you want in an ending -- it is true to the characters and the plot, with no left field twists.

Banning books is never a good idea. Unfortunately, teenagers do sometimes have to deal with loss and a book like Twenty Boy Summer could be incredibly helpful for a teen dealing with their own grief. They also do often lose their virginity, and the experience in this book is drawn in a careful and thoughtful way, not presenting it as a casual or frivolous thing, but also not the Most Important Thing In The World. Again, teens will be dealing with this issue and it's good for them to explore the different facets of different decisions before they are faced with it themselves, and books are a wonderfully safe environment for exploring.

I bought this book at a Borders GOOB sale.

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