Monday, December 16, 2013

Book Review: Summer Sisters by Judy Blume

I wanted to reread a book I loved once upon a time and see if it held up, and as I was looking through my saved books to decide, this one jumped out at me although initially it wasn't on my radar at all as a possibility. I remember loving it when it came out, loving all Judy Blume books I've read, in fact, and recently I'd used it as a comparison when talking about Jill McCorkle's Ferris Beach but afterwards I wasn't sure if my comparison held up, having read both books so long ago.

And while I did enjoy my reread, I don't feel like the book held up to my memories of it. I think it really resonated with me as the characters are 24-29 (mostly 24) in the beginning and end of the narrative, and that's about how old I was when I read it. It was also about a troubled friendship, and those first few years after college are rough on friendships as I was learning. Friends grow apart, disappear, change, and new friends are harder to come by.

At the beginning of the novel, Vix gets a phone call at work from her Caitlin, her "summer sister," telling Vix that Caitlin is about to get married and asking Vix to be her maid of honor. Then I am unclear if the middle part of the book is a giant flashback, or if the first second of the book is a foreshadowing, but either way we go back to when Vix and Caitlin are twelve and Caitlin first asks Vix to join her in Martha's Vineyard for the summer. The both live in Sante Fe and Vix has never seen the ocean and prospects for that aren't good. She's the oldest of four kids of working-poor parents, the youngest having muscular dystrophy which has strained the already tough family situation. Vix feels guilty about this advantage but her parents encourage her to take it (although partly to get her out of the house and to have one less mouth to feed for the summer). She gets to know Caitlin's brother and father, his new wife, her son, and his friend. Eventually, Vix is almost like family herself. And during those summers on the Vineyard, she falls in love with an older boy named Bru, and has a long relationship with him. Caitlin's father and step-mother arrange a scholarship for Vix to go to the same boarding school as Caitlin (who bitchily doesn't want to be friends with Vix during the school year) and later help her both get into and pay for Harvard.

Vix and Caitlin's relationship is complicated. Vix feels like the poor relation, which is even worse when you're not related. Caitlin is wild and Vix can't always rein her in. Caitlin is competitive although Vix doesn't want to compete with her. Caitlin thinks her father and step-mother prefer Vix to her and uncontrollably proceeds to sabotage all her important relationships. How far does friendship stretch? You want to be there for your friend, even when she's trying to push you away as that's often when she needs you the most, but when is enough, enough? How far can she push you before you need to take the hint and walk away? When is self-protection more important than your best friend?

What I wasn't crazy about was the way early adulthood was portrayed. Vix and Bru started dating when she was only 17 and when she graduated from college, everyone expected them to marry, and no one really said anything about how that could possibly be a bad idea (except Caitlin's step-mother once, briefly.) Also Caitlin and her two roommates who all moved to New York, all pretty quickly found "real" jobs. True, her friend on Wall Street did lose her job in the crash of 1987, but she then decided to go to law school (and how she paid for the ten months of living expenses in between wasn't mentioned.) No one was struggling to find real work, no one was waitressing or working retail. That wasn't my experience on my early twenties at all, and it felt like a middle-aged person's idea of what being in your early twenties is like.

I also didn't like that throughout the novel there are one-page sections where other characters tell their side of the story. Way too many minor characters were allowed these, they didn't tell you much (how could they in one page?), and they didn't serve to move the narrative along. The only ones that gave me any info I wasn't already getting from Vix's POV were the ones from Caitlin's step-brother's friend, and I even could have done without those as they foreshadowed the ending so much that I wasn't in the least bit surprised.

That said, I did like Vix's back story even if there wasn't much interaction with her family. He younger brother (not the one with muscular dystrophy) really could have vanished without me noticing. I liked that Vix's success didn't automatically make her family's situation improve. That unrealistic situation seems to happen a lot in fiction.

I also really liked Vix and Caitlin as well-drawn, complicated characters. Caitlin in particular was very compelling, and it's easy to see why Vix would feel drawn to her despite all the red-flags warning "accident ahead!" Who among us can look away from a car crash?

The book is full of drama, it speeds along without looking to the right or left, full steam ahead. It is a great book for a young adult to read. I know it's touted as an "adult" book, because Vix does grow up and I think at the end she's about 29, but in the bulk of the book she's a teenager and I think the portrayal of the life of a twenty-something is very idealized and what a teenager wants to imagine "the real world" to be like. It is also full of black-and-white situations, which again is a rather juvenile way of looking at the world, perfect for teens. I think the ending in particular makes me feel that way. While the ending works and fits with the personalities and didn't feel forced, at the same time, it seemed like Caitlin was punished for her transgressions of being a wild child. I think if the ending had been different and Caitlin's decisions turned out to be equally valid (if very different) options than her friends had made and than her parents wanted for her, I would have appreciated that more. It would have been more complex, if harder to accept. But that actually is how life does turn out a lot of the time. The misguided people in the world frequently do not learn the lessons from life that we think they should and it would have been a more interesting ending.

Rereading is risky. While I didn't love this book nearly enough now as I did initially, it wasn't disappointing. It indicated to me how my tastes have gotten more sophisticated, and I can see how this book would have really resonated with me back then. It was the right book at the right time, but now I am too old for it.

Who knows where I got this book, possibly at Bookstar or Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville, but I've owned it for almost 15 years.

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