Jenny Han, the author of the young adult novel “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” has a knack for creating stories that are both heartwarming and heart-wrenching, simultaneously evoking nostalgia and anticipation.
The book is the first in a trilogy that chronicles the life of the protagonist, Belly (short for Isabel), as she navigates the joys and pains of adolescence, friendship, and first love.
The story is set in the summertime at Cousins Beach, a place that holds a special significance in Belly’s life.
She has spent every summer of her childhood there, along with her mother, her brother, the Fisher family, Susannah (her mother’s best friend), and her two sons, Conrad and Jeremiah. The summer in question, however, is different.
It’s the summer Belly turned pretty, the summer things began to change.
On first reading the title and blurb, I was curious to delve into Belly’s story, to understand what it meant for her to “turn pretty” and how this transformation would unfold over the course of that pivotal summer.
The promise of a tale intertwined with the themes of coming of age and first love piqued my interest.
Background of the Book
“The Summer I Turned Pretty” was first published in 2009, a time when young adult fiction was burgeoning as a genre, with authors like John Green and Suzanne Collins creating waves with their empathetic storytelling and strong character arcs.
Jenny Han, already well-known for her “Shug” and “Burn for Burn” series, ventured into a slightly different space with this trilogy, focusing more closely on the nuanced inner world of her female protagonist.
The book unfolds at Cousins Beach, a fictional location that evokes the magic of idyllic summers.
The detailed setting becomes almost a character in its own right, shaping the experiences of Belly and the Fisher boys.
This place serves as a catalyst for their growth and change, making it a significant aspect of the narrative.
Although the novel does not explicitly tie in with Han’s previous works, it carries her trademark blend of emotion, introspection, and relatability that strikes a chord with readers.
One could say that “The Summer I Turned Pretty” is a stepping stone in Han’s writing career, showcasing her ability to create compelling, authentic characters and weave a story that resonates with its audience, setting the tone for her future novels.
Overview of Main Characters
The main character in “The Summer I Turned Pretty” is Belly, a 15-year-old girl experiencing the throes of adolescence.
Belly is deeply introspective and emotional, often feeling like an outsider in her own life.
She’s relatable in her experiences of unrequited crushes, insecurity, and longing for something more.
As the story progresses, Belly begins to ‘turn pretty,’ not just in a physical sense but also in her emotional maturity.
This journey of self-discovery and personal growth forms the crux of Belly’s character arc.
Then there are the Fisher boys, Conrad and Jeremiah, who have shared every summer with Belly at Cousins Beach.
Conrad, the older of the two, is brooding and somewhat mysterious. He’s also the object of Belly’s longstanding, unrequited crush.
Jeremiah, on the other hand, is more open and friendly, the proverbial boy-next-door.
Both boys exhibit substantial character development as they too grapple with the trials and tribulations of growing up.
Finally, there are Belly’s mother and Susannah, the boys’ mother. They are pivotal secondary characters who influence the dynamics between Belly and the Fisher boys.
Belly’s mother is depicted as loving yet strict, while Susannah is portrayed as warm and caring, almost a second mother to Belly.
Their presence and actions have a significant impact on the unfolding events.
The story of “The Summer I Turned Pretty” is predominantly a coming-of-age tale, skillfully told through a mix of present events and past summer flashbacks.
Belly, Conrad, and Jeremiah are at the heart of this story, their relationships evolving as they navigate the complicated dynamics of friendship, love, and the transition into adulthood.
The plot hinges on the titular summer when Belly ‘turns pretty.’ It’s a turning point, not just for Belly, but for everyone around her as they begin to see her differently.
Belly’s unrequited love for Conrad, her burgeoning feelings for Jeremiah, and the undercurrent of jealousy and rivalry that emerges between the boys make for a compelling narrative.
However, it’s not all about the romantic entanglements.
The book also delves into themes of loss and grief, as a devastating event threatens to unravel the familiar fabric of their shared summers.
How each character responds to this event, leading to the climax and subsequent resolution, reflects their personal growth and resilience.
While I’ll avoid giving away major spoilers, it’s safe to say that “The Summer I Turned Pretty” takes its readers on an emotional roller coaster, weaving a tale of youth, love, and loss that lingers long after the last page is turned.
Themes & Symbols
“The Summer I Turned Pretty” delves into a host of themes central to the coming-of-age genre.
At its core, it explores the transition from adolescence to adulthood, masterfully encapsulated in Belly’s ‘turning pretty.’
This turning isn’t merely about physical beauty; it’s about her personal growth and maturity, her evolving perspectives on relationships, love, and life itself.
The novel also delves into the theme of first love and heartbreak, largely through Belly’s romantic feelings for Conrad and her complex relationship with Jeremiah.
Belly’s journey of love is both sweet and painful, marked by the longing, confusion, and intense emotions that often characterize a teenage girl’s first brush with romance.
Loss and grief emerge as significant themes later in the story, altering the dynamics among the characters and marking a significant shift in their summer tradition.
This portrayal is poignant and realistic, underscoring the harsh reality that even the most idyllic circumstances are not immune to change and suffering.
The beach house is a recurrent symbol throughout the novel, representing both a physical space and a timeless capsule of shared memories, joys, and heartaches.
It’s a haven that witnesses the characters’ growth, their changing relationships, and their struggles.
Reading “The Summer I Turned Pretty” was an emotional journey that reminded me of the bittersweet nuances of growing up.
Belly’s character resonated with me, particularly her feelings of insecurity, her longing for acceptance, and her journey of self-discovery.
Her emotions, thoughts, and dilemmas felt very real and relatable.
One aspect that struck me was Belly’s relationship with Conrad and Jeremiah.
The dynamics of their friendship, interspersed with rivalry, jealousy, and changing perceptions, added a layer of complexity to the narrative.
It made me reflect on how relationships evolve as we grow and change.
However, there were moments when I found myself disagreeing with the author’s portrayal of certain situations.
For instance, Belly’s constant longing for Conrad occasionally seemed excessive and bordered on obsession.
I would have appreciated a more balanced representation of her emotions.
Overall, Han’s portrayal of the trials and tribulations of adolescence, first love, and the inevitable losses that come with growing up is heartfelt and engrossing.
Her characters, their emotions, and their journeys offer a deeply engaging reading experience.
Style & Language
Jenny Han’s writing style in “The Summer I Turned Pretty” is both evocative and relatable.
She deftly balances the light-hearted moments of summer with the heavy pull of emotional undercurrents.
Han’s narration is imbued with a lyrical quality that beautifully captures the essence of summer and the sweet torment of adolescence.
The author’s choice of language is simple yet poignant.
The dialogues feel real, echoing the natural banter, teasing, and heartfelt exchanges between teenagers.
The conversations between Belly and the Fisher boys or her mother reveal a lot about their characters, feelings, and the shifting dynamics of their relationships.
Han’s use of imagery and descriptive language is particularly effective in bringing the setting to life.
The picturesque descriptions of Cousins Beach and the beach house provide a vibrant backdrop against which the characters’ stories unfold.
It’s easy to envision the sunlit beach, the warm, inviting house, and the tranquil summer evenings that form the essence of Belly’s summers.
“The Summer I Turned Pretty” offers a lot to admire, particularly its realistic portrayal of adolescence and the complexities of young love.
The characters are well-drawn, each one distinctive with their strengths and flaws. Belly’s journey of self-discovery is particularly engrossing.
I appreciated the inclusion of deeper themes such as loss and grief, which added a layer of depth to the narrative.
However, there are a few areas where the book could have been stronger.
At times, the pacing of the story seemed inconsistent, with some parts of the book moving at a slower pace than others.
Additionally, the story was quite predictable in certain places, particularly regarding Belly’s romantic entanglements.
One area that sparked controversy among readers was Belly’s ‘turning pretty.’
The concept could be interpreted as reinforcing superficial beauty standards, although I believe Han intended to depict Belly’s transformation in a broader, more emotional sense.
Nevertheless, some readers might find this concept problematic.
Overall, despite its minor flaws, “The Summer I Turned Pretty” is a compelling exploration of adolescence, love, and the inevitable changes that come with growing up.
Comparing “The Summer I Turned Pretty” to Jenny Han’s previous works, it’s evident that Han continues to display a keen understanding of the teenage mind and heart.
However, unlike her previous works such as “Shug,” this book delves deeper into the emotional landscape of its protagonist, making it more nuanced and introspective.
When it comes to other books within the same genre, “The Summer I Turned Pretty” can be likened to Sarah Dessen’s novels, which also expertly portray the joys and challenges of adolescence.
However, Han’s narrative has a unique charm, largely due to the pivotal role of the idyllic summer setting and the complex relationships among the core characters.
“The Summer I Turned Pretty” is a compelling read that beautifully captures the essence of youth, love, and loss.
The characters are relatable, the narrative is engaging, and the emotional depth of the story resonates with the reader.
Despite minor issues with pacing and predictability, the book stands out for its authentic portrayal of adolescence.
I would certainly recommend this book to readers who enjoy young adult fiction and coming-of-age stories.
The emotional journey it offers is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, leaving a lasting impression.
It’s a book that evokes nostalgia for the innocence of youth while reminding us of the inevitable changes that come with growing up.
Despite the minor flaws, Jenny Han’s “The Summer I Turned Pretty” is a testament to the power of storytelling in capturing the complex emotions and transitions of adolescence.
It’s a book that will make you laugh, cry, and reminisce about your own journey of growing up.
My overall rating for “The Summer I Turned Pretty” would be 4 out of 5 stars.
Storyline and Plot: 4/5.
The plot is engaging, and while it’s primarily a coming-of-age tale, the blend of romance, friendship, and elements of tragedy keeps the narrative interesting.
There are moments of predictability, but they do not significantly detract from the overall experience.
Jenny Han has done an excellent job with character development.
The characters, especially Belly, are relatable and well-rounded. They each have their unique quirks and undergo significant growth as the story progresses.
Writing Style: 4/5.
Han’s writing style is smooth and immersive, with a fine balance of description and dialogue.
She excels at creating vivid imagery, particularly with the beach setting. However, there were times when the pacing could have been more consistent.
Themes and Messages: 4/5.
The book touches upon important themes like adolescence, first love, loss, and personal growth.
Although the concept of ‘turning pretty’ might be controversial for some readers, I believe it symbolizes Belly’s emotional transformation more than her physical changes.
Overall Emotional Impact: 4.5/5.
“The Summer I Turned Pretty” is a book that successfully evokes a wide range of emotions, from joy and anticipation to sadness and empathy.
The emotional journey of the characters is genuinely moving.
In conclusion, “The Summer I Turned Pretty” is a touching coming-of-age novel that offers an engaging story, memorable characters, and a poignant exploration of young love and growing up.
It’s a worthwhile read for any fan of young adult fiction.