When I came across this title, I thought it would be fun to read. I rather enjoy those Where the Boys Are
stories. When done well, like that film and some of those Sarah Dessen novels, the summer-girl-boy theme can be cute. On some levels, The Summer My Life Began
does have some good points, however I don’t feel that the book reached its full potential as a story.
I like the idea behind the story, and in some ways it was something I could relate to. The main character Elizabeth Margaret (Em) is at the top of her class and on her way to an Ivy League school. For all of those years, Em has been focused on her work and studies and never really had time set aside for herself. Presented with the opportunity to spend a part of her summer with her Aunt at her beach resort, she jumps at the opportunity.
There, Em meets some interesting kids, namely Frederick, Cade, James and Beth. However, these characters aren’t fully developed. Yes by the story’s end, the reader does learn some facts about them—which at times were predictable—, however they’re just statements—labels put on these characters to make them more salient to the story. The way Greenland presents this information felt jarring, especially since there was ample opportunity for her to flesh out these characters in a more gradual fashion.
As I was reading this story, I couldn’t help but remember how my mother described reading Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black
—reading and reading and reading, nothing is happening, then all of a sudden something happens that forces you to attention, and yet when you think about it, it doesn’t at all make sense. The Summer My Life Began
is likewise marked by this feeling of stasis. The first half of the book is essentially summarized by my second paragraph, with the addition of those other characters. Since Em is telling the story, the reader is suffused with her musings and thoughts—the direction her life is going—is she happy, not happy—what is she going to do—oh and there are a couple of hot guys here to keep me company as well! I like reading stories about inner conflicts, however Em’s musings only made me question her intelligence. For this valedictorian, supposedly on the way to Harvard, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Where is her common sense?” In regards to the all important question of her future, why couldn’t she consider two directions instead of one? She could easily have chosen both, and it would certainly have served as an asset to future plans. She doesn’t have good business sense. As well, she lacks tact. For example, when her grandmother’s long-buried secret comes to light, Em immediately confronts her grandmother with it via a sudden impromptu telephone conversation. Even at eighteen, I would have known that this was not the kind of conversation one should have on the telephone.
While the first half of the book is complete stasis, the second half is soap opera—all of the skeletons in the closet are released. The story shifts from Where the Boys Are
to one of those 1950s Troy Donahue films. I didn’t mind this so much, as it brought some needed spice to the story. However, if I was writing this, I think I would have taken it a little further in regards to the mystery figure on the yacht. In my mind’s eye, as I was reading, I was picturing a more intimate relationship in regards to Tilly...i.e. someone long lost finally returned. In fact, at one point I thought Greenland was suggesting this, though she never takes it any further.
Overall, my feelings for this book are somewhat mixed. At the outset, there is a lot of potential for this story, yet I don’t quite feel that Greenland reached it by the novel’s close.