Jenny Han

Belly is about to turn sweet sixteen and for as long as she can remember, she has spent each summer at her mother’s best friend’s beach house with her mother, her brother, and Susannah and her two boys. Belly has always adulated the older boy, Conrad, but the feelings have never openly been reciprocated, despite it being an open secret. She has always been everybody’s little sister, the “annoying little kid”. But this year, things have changed. Belly has changed, turned from little girl to pretty young lady, and the boys’ attitude towards her is altering. This summer, everything is going to change …

The story is narrated Belly (Isabel, who wins hands one the trophy for most stupid nickname ever) and a series of flashbacks to previous summers scattered throughout the book help us understand the relationships between characters and makes sense of some of the comments, feelings and situations in this present summer. Both families have a lot of issues and these are regularly brought to the surface, emphasising the importance of friendship and families. This gives a darker edge to what is otherwise quite a light summer read, fuelled on romance and first love.

Did I enjoy it? Honestly, I don’t know. I read it very easily and never struggled, but I am not sure I really liked any of the characters, which really bothered me. Yes, I was wooed a bit by Conrad (a bad boy with a soft heart will always make me go weak at the knees) but even he wasn’t that special. I found the female characters particularly disappointing. Belly was whiney, annoying and uninteresting and many of the other girls seemed to be portrayed as airhead bimbos (Taylor, Nicole, the girl from the arcade). Even the women seemed uninspired: Belly’s mother was cold and aloof and the hint towards the end that this might only have been a façade did little to redeem her in my eyes. Susannah is allegedly perfect (obviously seen through Belly’s eyes), although I found her behaviour exasperating. She is portrayed as Belly’s preferred mother figure, but she is doomed by illness, resulting ultimately in Belly “losing” her at the time when she needs a model the most. This might result in her getting closer to her own mother, but this remains unresolved at the end of this book. I am not quite sure why Jenny Han portrayed her characters like this, or why I could not sympathise with any of them. Often, summer reads like this rely on strong female characters and I felt this was lacking it totally; none of the characters ultimately had any real credibility for me.

Yes, I would like to know what happens next (a second novel, It’s Not Summer Without You, has already been published in the United States) and it was certainly an entertaining read but for me it will remain little more than a pale imitation of the better crafted stories by the talented Sarah Dessen.