Summer Sisters Deserves Warm Praise
Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
Puberty wouldn't have been the same without Judy Blume. We had sex ed classes to tell us what menstruation was; Judy Blume warned us how it would make us feel. We had science books to tell us about the biology of reproduction; Judy Blume clued us in on how the opposite gender felt and talked.
Then she wrote Wifey. I was still in high school at the time and remember someone telling me it was a "dirty" book. So I avoided it. I didn't want to be disillusioned and I wasn't ready to be an adult yet.
So when Summer Sisters came out last year, I hesitated. At 32, I'm more than ready to be an adult, but what if the book didn't live up to the standards of the pre-teen books she wrote? What if it left such a bad taste in mouth that it would wipe out the fond memories I had of Blubber, Are you there God, it's me, Margaret, or Deanie? I read some of the reviews written on it and decided it would be best to stay away from it. Then I came across a copy of it in a bargain bin for $2. I couldn't resist.
Still, it sat on my shelves. Every time I looked for something to read, I'd pass over it, still apprehensive about what I'd find in between its covers. Finally, earlier this week I decided to venture into it.
I'm glad that I did.
Blume Plays To Her StrengthsSummer Sisters is not the next great American novel. Nor would I even rank it as highly as I would some of the books she wrote 15 to 20 years ago for pre-teens. But I did enjoy it.
In Summer Sisters, Judy Blume plays off her strengths. She explores the intersection of the lives of two teenagers as they are discovering their selves, their independence, and their values. There are two very different young women: Caitlin and Victoria.
The two girls live and go to school in New Mexico. Victoria, usually called Vix, is the oldest of four children in a family where everything-especially money-is a struggle. Caitlin is the daughter of an exotic mother, Phoebe and a father who lives in Martha's Vineyard's. Caitlin is the popular girl, the one that everyone in junior high wants to be friends with. To Vix's great surprise, Caitlin asks Vix to join her on a summer in Martha's Vineyard. They quickly form a bond that would continue every summer as they returned to live with Caitlin's dad for three months.
This is not a book of innocence or child-like sweetness. Indeed, much of what Blume shows us in the lives of these pre-teenagers are the very things that parents don't want to know about-no matter how natural or inevitable they might be. It's not comfortable to read about two 11-year-olds discovering the "Power" even though they don't quite understand what it is nor why it makes them feel like they do. Yet, Blume is incredibly accurate in capturing that mix of naivete and sexual discovery. Perhaps part of her success lies in her ability to refresh the memories of her readers to the time when they too were first making their own discoveries.
Read it Once-OnlySummer Sisters is most enjoyable during the initial read. There are some books that simply get better the more you think about them. Others take on a greater richness and complexity on a second read when you begin to see the layers that were expertly placed by the author. This book is not one of those. Rather, it is a book that will amuse and entertain you while you read it. Once you start interpreting it or looking at it more closely, the flaws begin to show themselves.
My main criticism of Summer Sisters is that Blume occasionally tried to make the book more than what it was. She employed several literary devices in the construction of the novel and they just didn't work. Or rather, they worked, but only in the most craftsmanlike way. They held together and were functional, but they didn't have anywhere near the artistic flair that other authors display when they use the same devices.
Instead, Blume's occasional tendency to switch perspective or her attempt to be non-linear through a flashback simply distracted me from the rest of the novel. The change in perspectives didn't give me any new insight into the characters she was spotlighting. There was one character, Caitlin's brother Sharkey, who didn't seem to serve any real purpose in the novel at all, except as a possible red herring. It didn't help that I read Summer Sisters immediately after reading Toni Morrison, for Blume was clumsy with the technique compared to Morrison.
The attempt at being non-linear was probably the biggest flaw in the book-and I'm typically a fan of that technique. However, it colored by view on the rest of the book and the relationships. It set up an artificial suspicion of Caitlin by telling us in the first chapter that she will do something to profoundly betray Vix. We see their friendship as dangerous because we are set up to think so in the beginning. Yet, the rest of the novel doesn't really support that feeling. Also, by beginning in the middle, it makes the readers wary of one of the characters long before we meet him and we never get the chance to believe in Vix's relationship and are constantly searching for someone else to pair herself up with.
Indeed, the jacket cover promotes Summer Sisters as the story of those dangerous friends that we've all had but stayed faithful too. Indeed, Blume does try to make Caitlin out to be the siren set on betraying and harming Vix. Yet, Blume's Caitlin pales in comparison to Margaret Attwood's Xenia in The Robber Bride. Indeed, if you're interested in that sort of theme, Attwood's book is one I would highly recommend.
Normally I would save criticism of such a literary vein for books that portend to be something other than entertainment. While Summer Sisters more than holds its own in the entertainment category, there are signs everywhere that Blume wanted the book to be something more-something that would make an English professor at even the best of colleges take notice. Unfortunately, the devices and references get in the way rather than make the book better.
I was especially distracted when Vix's mother made repeated references ala F. Scott Fitzgerald about how the rich are different from the rest of us. I felt like playing the curmudgeon and quoting back Ernest Hemingway, "Yes, I know. They have more money than we do."