Thursday, June 4, 2009

Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler

Years and years of wishes made over birthday candles are finally answered when Anna turns fifteen and Matt, her best friend, finally kisses her. The two carry out a secret romance, delaying telling Matt’s sister--and Anna’s best female friend--Frankie until the two siblings’ annual trip to California, where he can find the best way to tell her. But they never get to that point because a month later, an undetected defect in Matt’s heart leads to a car accident, claiming Matt’s life and any semblance of normalcy in Anna’s and Frankie’s.

Anna promised Matt she’d let him tell Frankie of their hidden relationship and with his passing, she can’t bring herself to confess to her best friend. This secret robs her of her right to mourn--she feels so guilty and protective of Frankie that she becomes the strong one in the friendship, saving them from the depths of depression while also dealing with her demons. And the family trip to California Frankie’s parents are planning a year later in order to bring some closure isn’t helping, especially when all Frankie wants to do is hook up with twenty boys. How can Anna really embark on that when she’s still in love with her best friend’s dead brother? At the same time, how would she explain a refusal to take part in it?

Anna’s love-soaked memories of Matt--of romantic things they did together or flashbacks dating even further back, Before The Kiss, when she was still falling in love with him--are all we have to go on the man itself and yet he’s such a force in this novel. I’m not sure what it takes to make a character of the past have believable influence over the present, to convince us he’s real over such limited glimpses of all he was. But Matt resuscitated in all the passages Anna’s conflicted about all things relating to him, and if nothing else, there’s something really pure in that quality.

Luckily, there’s no need to get on the “if nothing else” optimistic train because there’s so much else. The characters are there, not one of them flawless but every last one real. Even unblemished Matt (don’t speak ill of the dead, eh?) leaves some ambiguity he can’t answer for. Further: At its core, this is a story about love, but not always a love story, and incorporates all manifestations of said love--familial, platonic and romantic. It’s just so well rounded.

But! As much as I’d evidently love to praise this book seven ways way past Sunday, one thing wasn’t… cooked long enough for me. The single most compelling factor herein is Anna’s conflicted feelings about her loyalty to Matt and her attraction to this new summer boy, Sam. While I thought Sam’s character was for all intents and purposes all right, as a reader, after experiencing her emotional rollercoaster in light of every miniscule thing, I couldn’t feel her desire for him. What there was of it paled to her descriptions of how Sam made her feel…I don’t know.

Also, a bit minor, but I thought Frankie lost a lot of her characterization in the year following Matt’s death. We get to see a ton of Matt and Anna of the past and Frankie is lost in transition. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a crystal (sea glass?) clear picture of her grief painted left and right but…it just would’ve been nice to understand her in such an emotionally-investing novel.

With all this said, though, ya know what? I don’t care. Sam could be an allegory for all future guys in Anna’s life and how she’ll deal with the anxiety that comes with wanting to forget but also remember, and the frustration of not knowing just what was it she lost with Matt and if she’s betraying him. Anna’s exploration of this theme is worth every page.

The writing’s just beautiful and the way Sarah Ockler writes about grief, incorporating a very particular sentimentality to it, is subtle and genuine and inimitable. This lingers. I do recommend this novel, I do I do! B

Little, Brown
| 290 pages | June 1st, 2009 | Excerpt | GoodReads | IndieBound | Amazon


ilonga said...

How lucky! I want so much to read this book. It was released last monday, right?

Steph said...

Yup, June 1st! A newb. :)

bermudaonion said...

Sounds good. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Amee said...

Sounds great! I really wish more books started in paperback. So many good ones I have to wait for paperback!

Thao said...

I agree with the Sam thing. I don't consider the part he plays in the novel important or it's overshadowed by Matt's. I really love the book nevertheless : )

Reader Rabbit said...

Agreed about the Sam thing. :) Great review...I ought to post mine soon!

Beth F said...

I'm hoping to win this from Alea, so if I do, I'll be reading it.

Unknown said...

That sounds really good. I had seen the title around and was expecting something totally different -that's what you get for not reading the synopsis, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Great review! I'm really looking forward to reading this. The cover is gorgeous, too.

Melissa Walker said...

I really want to read this one!

Anonymous said...

Absolutely sounds like something I would love. Great review -- I'm going to look for it soon!

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