Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 290 pages
“Don’t worry, Anna. I’ll tell her, okay? Just let me think about the best way to do it.”
“Promise me? Promise you won’t say anything?”
“Don’t worry.” I laughed. “It’s our secret, right?”
According to her best friend Frankie, twenty days in Zanzibar Bay is the perfect opportunity to have a summer fling, and if they meet one boy ever day, there’s a pretty good chance Anna will find her first summer romance. Anna lightheartedly agrees to the game, but there’s something she hasn’t told Frankie—she’s already had that kind of romance, and it was with Frankie’s older brother, Matt, just before his tragic death one year ago.
Beautifully written and emotionally honest, this is a debut novel that explores what it truly means to love someone and what it means to grieve, and ultimately, how to make the most of every single moment this world has to offer.
I love reading summer books, because I love summer. Summer in the Philippines can be horrendous, but I love the sun, I love having long days and plans with friends and going to the beach and just enjoying the sand, sea and the (seemingly) infinite possibilities that a summer day can bring (like getting personalized basketballs, for example).
I wasn’t sure what Sarah Ockler‘s Twenty Boy Summer was about when I first saw it, and from the title, I thought it was just one of those summer fling books. Imagine me wrinkling my nose at the idea. But after some time, I decided to try a sample and realized from that it wasn’t just a summer fling book, but one that also tackles grief and friendship, and that was enough for me to give it a try. Twenty Boy Summer is about Anna, Frankie and Matt, who have been best friends forever. Anna, our protagonist, has been harboring a secret from the two of them: she has been in love with Matt for years now. On Anna’s 15th birthday, she gets her wish when Matt kisses her after their cake fight. They keep this secret relationship from Frankie at least until they get to their yearly vacation to California, where Matt promises to tell his sister about it. He never got the chance to tell her because the day before they were to leave for California, Matt passes away from a heart defect. Everyone is devastated, but not as much as Anna, because her secret relationship with Matt would forever remain a secret.
A year later, Anna gets invited to join Frankie’s family for their vacation. Anna and Frankie were convinced that this would be their ABSE (Absolute Best Summer Ever), and the perfect time for Anna to lose her virginity, so they set up a twenty-boy contest. The logic was simple: they would be in California for 23 days. Give or take 3 days of sight seeing, that leaves them 20 days to meet a boy each day. Anna still can’t get over Matt, but she also promised to take care of Frankie, so she says yes to this plan. Then starts their supposed absolute best summer ever.
Sarah Ockler definitely hit it right with the summer theme in this book, and it made me miss those days when my friends and I were planning beach trips, whether it is overnight or a long trip on faraway places in the country. Twenty Boy Summer has a lot of those elements, almost making me feel the sand between my toes or hear the surf as it hits the shore (aptly described as Sshhhh, ahhh. Sshhh ahhh. Can you hear it now?). In a way, it’s a pretty relaxing book, despite the themes it attempted to tackle. There were also some great descriptions of items in the story, such as the sea glass being mermaid’s tears, or the ocean being “licorice soup”, or how Anna felt after her first time. I think Ockler had a way with words that actually transported me to the beach just by imagination.
What was kind of disappointing with this book is sadly, the characters. I’m not sure if I mentioned it before, but I pay close attention to the characters of books I read. Sometimes I think I like characters more than the plot because I think even the most boring plots can be spiced up by strong characters. I like it when I connect to the characters at some level, even if I can’t empathize or relate to their situation in the book. I tried my best, but I just couldn’t connect to Anna or Frankie in this book. I figure it may be because Anna and I don’t have much in common, but I don’t think that’s a valid enough excuse for me to feel distant from them. The setting pulled me in, yes, but the characters kind of put me at arm’s length through out the novel. I felt that the characters were somewhat inconsistent with how they were initially portrayed. Anna first came off as the good and sad girl who secretly grieved for Matt, but as the story unfolded, she seemed inconsistent to that. Her witty comments seemed a bit out of place, and her and her emotional outbursts felt lacking. For example (spoiler warning):
A lie? It hits me like a sledgehammer, releasing all the hurt and sadness and confusion I’ve held inside the last fourteen months. I jump up without speaking and bolt to the shore, unable to hold it any longer.
“How could you leave us like this?” I bawl at the sky, tears spilling into my mouth, ignoring the blurred runners who pass behind me without slowing. Just another drunk little girl, they must think.
“Tell her!” I should. “Tell her you made me promise! Tell her it’s your fault! Tell her it was a lie for you, too! Tell her you loved me!”
Maybe it’s just me, but that particular passage lacked something, some oomph. I didn’t feel Anna’s anguish; it felt more like a show than real emotion.
Frankie, on the other hand, seemed to go from being the bad girl to the good girl and back to bad. She seemed to be the typical girl who’s acting out because of someone’s death, but it didn’t feel genuine. However, Frankie’s character is kind of justifiable after a huge revelation in the book, so that kind of saved her. Anna is a bit too confusing for me to really like her, and that’s saying a lot since the novel is in first person POV. I felt more like a silent spectator through out their adventures in the novel. At least I was on the beach, right?
Furthermore, I wasn’t sure if it was able to tackle the grief aspect right. I had no qualms about how friendship issues were dealt with, but I think the grief part wasn’t highlighted enough, save for those small moments (ex. Anna and Matt’s mother talking about Matt, Anna and Frankie’s conversation at the end about Matt). Perhaps it was meant to be that way — I’m not sure. Actual grief is kind of hard to write about, but there’s a lot of YA books that managed to tackle that gracefully (perfect example: The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen).
Overall, this isn’t really a bad novel. I liked the summer aspect and the setting, but the characters and some of the serious themes that it attempted to deal with didn’t really work out that well for me. Some reader discretion is advised, especially for the young ones since this book also deals with losing one’s virginity over a summer fling (which obviously won’t work for me, either). It’s okay enough to be considered a good read for my standards, but in the end, it’s just not my type of summer.
2010 Challenge Status:
* Book # 68 out of 100 for 2010
Cover and Blurb: Goodreads