Thursday, July 8, 2010

Summer Sisters

I came to Judy Bloom late, relatively speaking. I didn't read Summer Sisters till I was 19, and it remains the only Bloom book I've read. I'm not sure why or how that happened, but I'm really glad I listened when my best friend insisted I read it.

Coming-of-age stories are a pretty classic summertime trope. When you're growing up, summer isn't like real life, which means all sort of things can happen. In Summer Sisters this is especially true, because the two main characters, Vix and Caitlin, spend their summers in Martha's Vineyard, hundreds of miles away from their homes in Santa Fe. Caitlin's dad has a summer home on the Vineyard and she's gone there every summer she can remember. When the story begins, just before the summer the girls are 12, Vix has never been farther away from home than her parents could drive, which was never very far. Caitlin, a new girl at school and impossibly popular, chooses Vix to be her summer sister, to come to the Vineyard for two months, all expenses paid. Yes, that little plot point seems a bit improbable, but in the context of the story, and Caitlin's old-money family, it makes sense that she would be allowed to bring a friend away for the summer.

There are a lot of coming-of-age cliches that impossible to get away from simply because their cliche status comes from their universality. Rather than try and steer her novel away from those touchstones of growing up, Bloom nods to them as she's goes by and then handles them with such grave and searing honesty that you wonder a bit how she could know you so well.

Summer Sisters starts when the girls are about 12 and continues until they are 30 or so. It's set mostly in the summers, although as Vix gets older and goes to university we're treated to more of her life. With 18 years to deal with, Bloom has a lot of space for character development. She deals with their increasing maturity, their first jobs, how their interactions with the boys in the house change, how they deal with graduation. But, to my mind, Bloom's crowning achievement is how she handles their increasing sexuality and their relationships (describing the friendship between Caitlin and Vix is the sort of thing university papers are for, so I will leave it to you to read the book and see for yourself).

A lot of books seems to skip right over all the sexual confusion of the 12-15 year old girl. Instead, Bloom dives right in. She talks about masturbation, about the girls' desire for breasts, about their desire for their periods to come and how they're simultaneously fascinated and confused by their new bodies. Reading the early sections of this book brings me right back to that point in my life with such vividness I have to take a minute to catch my breath. And although Bloom is never graphic, neither does she shy away from describing Vix's sex life, or the fact that her long-time, monogamous relationship isn't quite what she thinks it is.

Maybe that's what I like best (or appreciate most) about Bloom's writing: at every step she resists moralizing. It's so easy to throw little lessons in to YA literature and assume the reader won't pick up on it in a conscious way, but Bloom doesn't do that. She tells a story, which is both delightful and heartbreaking, without telling you which characters are good and which are bad; or who you should emulate and who you should avoid. In Bloom's world, everyone is flawed, and that's why they're interesting. And although I see myself in the story, it doesn't represent me, because Bloom doesn't want it to.

Summer Sisters
by Judy Bloom
First published in 1998 (cover image shown from Dell edition)

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