Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
(Delacorte, $21.95, R) ISBN 0-385-32405-7
****
I grew up on Judy Blume books. In fourth grade I read Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and was scandalized to the tips of my 9-year-old toes that Margaret talked about buying her first brassiere and getting her first period. I loved that book so much that I wrote a letter to Judy Blume and she responded with a handwritten note! Several years later I read Forever, one of the first books I encountered that contained explicit sex. It's probably been 18 years since I've read a Judy Blume book, and while I've grown up, I'm not sure that she has.

Summer Sisters is a current bestseller, and when I requested it at my local library I found myself number 577 in the request queue. So obviously this book is enormously popular. I can't say it was a memorable read but it was like eating a bag of potato chips I had to keep reading, and one brief chapter led to another and another and another until the 400 pages were finished in less than 2 days.

The novel isn't a romance; it's the story of the 20-year friendship between Victoria ("Vix") and Caitlin, two very different girls. Vix is shy and serious; Caitlin is bold and fun-loving. As the novel begins in 1977, Vix is flattered when 12-year old Caitlin invites her to summer with her in Martha's Vineyard, where Caitlin's father lives. That summer turns out to be only the first of many, as Vix is caught up in the lives of Caitlin's family and island friends. The two consider themselves "summer sisters" and swear a pact together that they will never be "ordinary." Over the years they experiment sexually, graduate from high school and go their separate ways. But their lives remain entwined.

It's easy to see why Vix is attracted to Caitlin's spirit of adventure and why Caitlin needs Vix's loyalty and stability, but both characters remain sketchy and Blume never does more than skim the surface. She utilizes an odd narrative style. Most of the novel is told from Vix's point of view, but the chapters are interspersed with short paragraphs that give brief glimpses of the secondary characters' thoughts. In some cases these are extremely minor characters who are never heard from again. It seems to me that there would have been a more sophisticated way of conveying the same information without breaking up the flow of the novel so much.

Then there's the sex. Well, there is only a moderate amount of actual sex, but at least for the first half of the novel that's about all Vix and Caitlin think or talk about. There's even some adolescent sexual exploration between the girls. At times I felt guilty reading it I was expecting my mother to stroll in the door, demand to see what I was reading and take it away from me in horror. Well, at least I know to hide the book from my precocious 7-year old daughter.

Blume relies primarily on dialogue to move the story forward; her writing style is uncomplicated and casual. The benefit of the unusual narrative style is that it's easy to read the entire novel in just about one sitting. That makes it perfect beach reading (I know, it's almost Labor Day but as Number 577 in line I had to bide my time). While the novel can't be considered a romance, two characters do find happiness together. A warning for romance readers: a downbeat plot twist ends things on a somber note.

Summer Sisters' characters and the words themselves left little impression on me other than nostalgia for a time when Judy Blume was the only adult who discussed things that I cared about but didn't dare talk about with my parents or teachers. I felt like I regressed to my adolescent self as I read the novel, but I'm glad to leave that age behind and rejoin the present.

--Susan Scribner


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