~by Sarah Ockler
When I was offered an advance copy of Sarah Ockler's debut young adult novel Twenty Boy Summer, I was a bit hesitant to accept. From the book's provided description, I didn't expect it to be something that I would really enjoy--the characters came across as irresponsible, boy crazy, sixteen-year-olds and I didn't want to deal with that. But after coming across a positive review of the novel promising that it had more depth than it first appeared, I decided to give it a shot. I am glad that I did, because I ended up being surprised with how much I enjoyed it, and with how good it was--especially for a first published work.
Frankie and Anna are best friends. Add in Frankie's older brother Matt, and you get a virtually inseparable trio. Soon after Anna's fifteenth birthday, she and Matt become more than just friends, even though nobody else knows. Before they get a chance to tell anyone, Matt's unexpected death causes everyone's life to be thrown into turmoil. A year later, Frankie's family is planning to take their annual vacation to Zanzibar Bay like they always used to do, and have invited Anna to join them. Frankie and Anna throw themselves into planning the A.B.S.E. (Absolute Best Summer Ever), hoping to distract themselves from their loss and get a fresh start, if only for a few weeks over the summer. Looking for a summer fling or even a romance, Frankie has the brilliant idea to try to meet a different boy on almost every day of the trip. Anna hesitantly agrees to the scheme; she's still attached to Matt even though he's gone--but Frankie doesn't know about that and Anna had promised to let him tell his sister.
I can't say that I agree with some of the attitudes portrayed by the characters regarding virginity and sex, but they were realistic portrayals and I'm sure they are not that uncommon. On the other hand, I was very glad to see the inclusion of healthier habits such as the use of condoms. I never quite grew to like Frankie, but understood why Anna would put up with her and stick with her even after their relationship changed when Matt died. I did care enough about both of them, though especially Anna, that I didn't want them to make stupid mistakes with their lives. I felt compelled to keep reading because I wanted to be sure that they would both be okay when all was said and done. Perhaps the best thing about the book was how Ockler was able to explore the experience of grief in such an understanding and life-affirming way. The death of a loved one--whether family, friend, or significant other--has a tremendous impact upon a person; lives can be drastically changed, and Ockler shows this. Ultimately, the book is more about how people deal with grief and death and friendship than it is about running around chasing boys.
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Twenty Boy Summer. I very much enjoyed Ockler's style--she was able to give Anna a believable and authentic voice. This authenticity extends to other aspects of the book as well. The story simply felt real. I wasn't taken aback or shocked by any of the plot "twists"--not because the novel was formulaic, but because I found it to be so believable. The characters were at times on the verge of being stereotypes but their portrayals were usually distinctive enough to avoid this, although it was sometimes close. Overall, Twenty Boy Summer is a wonderfully strong debut and I'm very glad that I took the chance to read it.