REVIEW: Five Summers by Una LaMarche
Dear Ms. LaMarche,
After going on a bit of an older YA/NA reading spree while on vacation, I found myself in the mood for more contemporary fare over my usual SF&F preferences. Your novel, Five Summers, fell right into that category. Add in evolving friendships between girls as they grow up and I was sold.
From ages 10 until 14, Emma, Skylar, Maddie, and Johanna attended a month-long summer camp. They met at camp and forged their friendships at camp. But all things come to an end and after their last summer camp at age 14, despite their efforts, those strong friendships faltered, communication lapsed, and they drifted apart.
Three years later, the four girls come together for a weekend reunion at the summer camp. It’s a chance for them to catch up and reconnect. At least that was the idea. But things start going wrong when secrets from their previous summers at camp rise to the surface and begin to destroy what weak bonds they have left.
What I liked best about Five Summers was that each of the girls, while fitting a recognizable archetype, never fell into complete and utter cliche. Emma is the brilliant girl on the Ivy League track. Skylar is the hippie artist. Maddie is the poor girl lying about her background. Jo is the tomboy daughter of the camp’s owner. I thought this was partly because their relationships with each other were fleshed out and complicated. Friendships, especially among teenaged girls, can have their ups and downs and the novel did a great job portraying that.
I wasn’t quite as thrilled about Emma and Skylar fighting over the same guy. It’s a predictable plotline, yes, but I’ve never been a fan of the “best friends going after the same boy” storyline. Mostly because it tends to devolve into an ugly fight between the girls while the boy is often portrayed as an innocent bystander who got caught up in the crossfire. Despite my initial lukewarm reaction, however, I thought this subplot redeemed itself at the end when the boy in question, Adam, is called out on his B.S. That’s really all I want: for the narrative to acknowledge when something or someone is in the wrong. And believe me, Adam is a jackass.
That said, I wish something more had been done with Emma and Skylar’s sexualities. The two are meant to contrast: Emma who wasn’t ready when she was 14 but is now and Skylar who started having sex early but is realizing that maybe mindless hookups aren’t what she’s really looking for. I think Emma got the better end of the deal in terms of exploration but Skylar’s epiphany was somewhat shortchanged.
Unfortunately, the Emma and Skylar drama overshadowed the stories revolving around Maddie’s coming clean about her background and Jo finding her own identity outside of the camp owner’s daughter. I never really got a handle on Maddie’s character and at times I thought Jo served as the afterschool special moment. Did you know that athletic girls who don’t like “girly” things might not be lesbians? Yeah. I appreciated what the narrative was trying to do with Jo’s character. That it was all right for girls not to like wearing dresses, that there is no wrong way to be a girl. But I’m not entirely convinced this effort succeeded since the narrative then goes on to call Jo “weird” and “abnormal.”
I’ll admit Five Summers is a predictable read. It does some things I wish more stories would do (call the boy out on his bullshit, show that there are many right ways to be a girl) but it isn’t what I’d call subversive or challenging. There’s nothing wrong with that but this is what I’d call more of a relaxing comfort read than anything else. B-