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Book Review

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It is the first book in the “Summer” series.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Isabel, nicknamed Belly, has grown up with Conrad and Jeremiah Fisher. Her mother, Laurel, is best friends with the boys’ mother, Susannah, so Belly, her mom and her older brother, Steven, have spent every summer for the past 15 years at the Fishers’ beach house in Cousins Beach. Belly has always been in love with Conrad and has always been pals with Jeremiah, but this year she is about to turn 16, and both boys begin to look at her differently.

Belly has blossomed into a lovely young woman, but her appearance isn’t the only thing that has changed at Cousins Beach. Conrad is acting moodier than usual, and Belly learns that he recently quit football, broke up with his girlfriend and began smoking. Since Belly still adores Conrad, it’s hard for her to see him acting so withdrawn.

Belly recalls when Conrad first broke her heart. She was 12 that summer. Conrad took her to the local boardwalk, which she had hoped was a date, but turned out to be a pretext for him to visit a girl he had a crush on.

Susannah, who is like a second mother to Belly, is worried about Conrad. Susannah’s health is frail because she went through a bout of breast cancer and chemo treatments. Belly remembers that she and Jeremiah bonded the summer when she was 13, because they both overhead Susannah talking to Laurel about her cancer treatments and crying over the possibility of a mastectomy. From that moment, Belly became a friend that Jeremiah could rely on for support during moments of family tragedy.

Belly’s 14th summer threatened to ruin her friendship with Jeremiah, however. Belly brought her best female friend, Taylor, to Cousins Beach, and Taylor immediately began flirting with both Fisher boys. Taylor decided to try to win Conrad’s heart, but Conrad wasn’t receptive to her attention. Jeremiah was, so she flirted a lot with Jeremiah.

During a game of truth or dare, Jeremiah kissed Belly in order to make Taylor jealous. It hurt Belly’s feelings because it was her first kiss, and she wanted the moment to be shared with someone she really liked, not with her close friend.

In the present, Jeremiah teaches Belly how to drive a stick shift, since she’ll be turning 16 and getting her license. Steven leaves the beach house to go on a college road trip with his dad, leaving Belly without her brother as a buffer between her and the Fisher boys. Conrad and Jeremiah get more protective of Belly when her new-and-improved appearance draws attention from other guys at Cousins Beach.

Clay, one of their neighbors, invites her to his Fourth of July bonfire. There, she meets Cam, a straightedge vegan — he consumes no alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, meat products or animal products. Cam likes her. Belly tells Conrad that she’s going to leave the party and get a ride home with Cam.

Conrad forbids her to leave. Belly feels that Conrad is treating her like a kid and gets so angry she nearly cries at the unfairness of the situation. Later, Jeremiah asks Belly to forgive Conrad for his bossy behavior because he’s going through a tough time emotionally.

Belly notices that Susannah is taking many naps and doesn’t socialize with the rest of the family like she usually does. Since Mr. Fisher has not visited the beach house even once, Belly speculates that their marriage might be in trouble. An impending divorce would explain Susannah’s reclusiveness and Conrad’s mood swings.

Cam invites Belly to a party at his friend’s house. Conrad and Jeremiah insist on also attending the party so they can protect Belly. Jeremiah sings a love song on the karaoke machine and dedicates it to Belly and Cam’s new summer romance, embarrassing Belly in front of everyone at the party.

Later on, the evening is ruined when Conrad gets drunk and tries to pick a fight with a bigger guy. Belly and Jeremiah manage to get Conrad away from the other guy before things get violent, ending Belly’s date with Cam in a very unsatisfying way. As Conrad and Belly wait in the car for Jeremiah to drive them home, Conrad strokes Belly’s hair. For Belly, the moment of close contact brings up all her old feelings for Conrad and she realizes she’s still in love with him.

Conrad tells Belly that his parents are getting a divorce but that his mom won’t admit it to the kids because she wants them to all have one last, perfect summer at the beach house. As July turns to August, Belly keeps meeting Cam and going on dates with him. Laurel and Susannah invite Cam over for dinner with the whole family, but it’s awkward because Conrad doesn’t come down for dinner and Jeremiah spends the meal making fun of Cam.

Conrad comes home drunk one night and turns on blaringly loud music. Belly wonders whether his sudden change in character will finally make her stop loving him. However, each time Belly meets Cam, her thoughts go to Conrad. Cam realizes that Belly’s obsession with Conrad is still ongoing, so he and Belly decide not to contact each other when the summer is over.

One night, while the family is watching movies together, Susannah falls asleep, and Jeremiah has to carry her upstairs. When the movie is over, Jeremiah and Belly are left alone, and Jeremiah confesses that he has feelings for her. He says that he hopes she’s over Conrad, but she tells him that she still cares for his brother.

Jeremiah’s confession gives Belly the strength to find Conrad and admit that she still loves him. He says he’s not the one for her, but she counters that she knows he likes her, too. Belly gets angry because she thinks Conrad is stringing her along, not wanting to return her love, but still wanting to receive the benefits of her admiration. They get into a verbal fight on the beach, and Belly is crying when Jeremiah drives up.

Jeremiah yells at Conrad for making Belly cry, and the two brothers have a fistfight due to their built-up tensions from a whole summer of unhappiness. Laurel breaks up their fight.

When Susannah arrives looking suddenly frail, it’s clear to Belly that the boys weren’t just unhappy because their parents are divorcing or because they both have feelings for her. Conrad and Jeremiah have been aware that their mother’s cancer has come back. Laurel tells Belly that Susannah’s cancer has now spread to her liver, meaning she will probably have less than a year to live.

The next day, Belly lies in bed crying, mourning over Susannah’s condition. She finally has a heart-to-heart talk with Susannah, who asks Belly to take care of Conrad in the future. Belly finds Conrad sitting out on the beach, looking heartbroken over his mother’s fate. She goes to sit with him as he cries. Belly kisses Conrad to comfort him, and he kisses her back. He indicates that he can’t really think about love and relationship issues at the moment, so Belly sits with him on the beach, holding his hand in silent support.

Summer draws to a close. Belly and Laurel start cleaning the beach house and packing up to go back home. On the last night, everyone sits around the dinner table and Susannah addresses her illness, saying that she wants to live life to the fullest, even if she doesn’t have much time left. After dinner, Belly invites Jeremiah and Conrad to come for a midnight swim with her in the pool. All three of them splash around and have fun together just like they’ve always had, though it’s clear that Conrad and Belly’s relationship has grown romantic.

Months later during the Christmas season, Conrad drives more than five hours to visit Belly in Boston. He arrives at midnight, and she goes outside to meet him. Happily together with Conrad at last, Belly feels like every summer of her life was leading her to this moment.

Christian Beliefs

Belly recalls visiting Taylor’s church and feeling like an outsider. Everyone there knew the words to all the songs and raised their hands in worship, while she didn’t know what to do.

Other Belief Systems

None

Authority Roles

Belly’s parents divorced a few years prior, and the divorce’s effects ripple through her life. Her relationship with her dad is distant, and even though he loves her, she doesn’t feel that he knows or understands her as a person.

Belly’s mom, Laurel, is a reasonable woman, supporting her daughter’s growing independence while encouraging her to be a better person. Belly wishes her mother would be more emotionally demonstrative and be more interested in talking with her about girly things such as dates and crushes.

Susannah loves her sons fiercely, easily expressing her affection verbally. Jeremiah has a particularly close relationship with his mom and hugs her frequently. Susannah is battling cancer and doesn’t have the strength to confront her son Conrad over his newly acquired negative behaviors — drinking and smoking. Susannah is exceptionally kind to Belly, offering a listening ear whenever Belly has something on her mind.

Mr. Fisher is an absent figure, known for his selfishness and his inability to support Conrad and Jeremiah. Taylor’s mother buys her expensive presents because she feels guilty over divorcing Taylor’s father.

Profanity/Violence

Profanity includes the terms a--, d--n, h---, s--- and d--k. God’s name is used in vain a few times.

When Conrad and Jeremiah fight, they leave each other bruised and bloody.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Teens discuss the progression of their physical relationships in baseball terms, such as Conrad getting to second base with a girl and Steven getting to third base with his ex-girlfriend.

Cam and Belly kiss. Belly is disappointed that he only kisses her sweetly and respectfully, and she wishes he would try to go further. She invites him to go skinny-dipping with her, but he is uncomfortable with the idea.

Belly’s first kiss was at age 14 with Jeremiah. Jeremiah corrects Taylor for using the word “gay” to mean “uncool.” Taylor kisses Steven, which prompts Belly to call Taylor a slut for flirting heavily with three different boys in the same house.

Belly and Conrad kiss.

Discussion Topics

How does Belly measure her life in summers? What elements of her life during each summer make that season more significant than the rest of the year? Is there a special location or time of year that holds significance for you? What makes it special? How can you bring some of that wonder and joy into your daily life?

How many years younger than Conrad, Steven and Jeremiah is Belly? How do they treat her because of the age gap, and how does it affect her interactions with them? Have you ever wanted to fit in with older siblings or acquaintances? What did you do to help earn their approval? How did they treat you? How could you make your younger siblings or acquaintances feel respected and valuable?

When Belly starts spending more time with Cam, how do her mother and Susannah react? Why is it easier for Belly to prioritize time with Cam over time with her family and friends? Has one of your friends or siblings ever stopped spending time with you because they began dating someone? Explain how you felt. What strategies could you put in place to make time for the people who have been in your life the longest, no matter the new people you may meet?

What is Susannah’s health condition at the start of the novel? What signs are there that she’s not her usual self? Why does she attempt to hide the truth from Belly, Conrad and Jeremiah? When you were a child, did you ever feel like we or other adults obscure the truth to make you feel better? If someone close to you had a serious illness or traumatic event, would you want to know about it or remain peacefully unaware?

Additional Comments/Notes

Alcohol: Teens drink alcohol at parties. Laurel and Susannah let their teenage children drink wine with dinner.

Drugs: Laurel and Susannah smoke Susannah’s medical marijuana, which she keeps to deal with the nausea from her cancer treatments.

Smoking: Laurel and Susanna occasionally smoke cigarettes when they are together.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

12 and up

Author

Jenny Han

Cast

Director

Distributor

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Released

On Video

Year Published

2009

Awards

ALA Best Books For Young Adults, 2010; Capitol Choices Noteworthy Book for Children and Teens, 2010; and more

Reviewer

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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