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May 15, 2005

Review: That Summer (Sarah Dessen)


I have read and loved a few of Dessen's more recent novels, especially This Lullaby and Keeping the Moon, so I was delighted to come across a copy of her debut, That Summer.

I have to admit that the writing was somewhat rough and cliched at times--it was clearly a first novel. And it did follow a lot of the conventions of young adult coming-of-age novels, making it somewhat predictable. But Dessen's unique voice and compelling characters are as real as ever.

The main character, Haven, has the weird name that seems to be a requirement of YA heroines, but instead of the usual mousy ugly duckling about to become swan looks, she's six feet tall. The book revolves around two weddings: Haven's sports reporter father to the weathergirl he ran off with, and her older sister to a young man Haven finds deplorably dull. Haven's mom is changing too, putting her life together after her divorce, and Haven feels like there's no place for her in her rapidly evolving family. Add her awful summer job, drama-ridden best friend (who, unfortunately, never becomes a three-dimensional character), and the whirlwhind of activity surrounding her sister's wedding, and Haven's got more than enough on her plate.

Enter Sumner. One in a long line of Haven's sister's ex-boyfriends, Sumner is the one that Haven remembers as being special. Haven's best memory is an idealized version of the summer vacation that Sumner took with her family several years before. Now, in this difficult summer, he reappears as though to save her and put her family back together again.

Impressively, though, Dessen doesn't have Haven get romantically involved with Sumner. (There aren't enough YA novels in which the heroine doesn't get a boyfriend as a matter of course along with her personal transformation.) Indeed, Haven learns that Sumner, and everyone else around her, are more complicated than they seem to be. And, really, so is this book--it goes past the light beach reading implied by the title to create a memorable main character and worthwhile, if not wholly unexpected, commentary on family, beauty, love, and more.

Posted by Kat at May 15, 2005 10:43 PM

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