Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2009, 320 pages
Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler had been on my radar for a while. It was published in 2009 and ever since, it’s floated around the various book blogs as the cover is intriguing and the title compelling. But what’s promised as either a cutesy summer read by the cover and title – and what’s promised as a serious and heartfelt look via the power of literature at the themes of love and loss aren’t fulfilled.
Quick summary – teenage Anna lives next door to her best friend, Frankie. Frankie’s family might as well be Anna’s family, except for Frankie’s brother Matt. At a birthday party for Anna, Anna and Matt come clean with their feelings for each other. Everything is going great, though Matt wants to wait to tell his sister about their relationship – until Matt dies. A year later, Anna and Frankie are still trying to heal and still keeping secrets from each other. The pair go to California in an attempt to renormalize Frankie’s family with their annual vacation with a mission to meet twenty boys in the time they have there.
It’s become the norm for me to read fiction with a feminist lens. It’s kind of impossible not to at this point. This was no different for Twenty Boy Summer which, as it turns out, has a plot that revolves largely around self-worth coming from the attention of boys and slut-shaming. There’s also this weird obsession with the value of virginity and I think it could be argued that the book leans toward old-fashioned and, frankly, oppressive ideas. Given that the primary, if superficial in various senses of the word, plot of the story is Frankie and Anna’s pursuit to have sex with (and then just kiss, and then just meet) twenty boys in a summer, it ends up feeling like the moral of the story is abstinence. Make of that what you will.
Though the story mostly revolves around Anna and her healing, Frankie and her parents make for far more interesting characters. Sadly, they’re underutilized. In brief moments, the parents’ pain over the loss of their son plays out in fascinating ways, flipping between giving Frankie free reign to do as she likes because life is short and holding Frankie to strict rules and conditions of family time because life is dangerous. A few tense passages show conflict between and within the parents, too – I wonder if this might have gone over better as a novel which focused on them. Frankie’s grief, too, plays out in engaging ways, but with Anna as the focal point, it’s impossible to tease out the intricacies and details of her methods of coping. Perhaps it’s the removal from and mystery of her grief that makes it so interesting, though I can’t help but wish it had been a greater piece of Twenty Boy Summer.
In general, setting tends to be a non-issue for me in that I don’t notice it all that much unless it’s specifically relevant to the plot. I did find Ockler’s choice of Northern California to be thought-provoking. While the themes of excess and promiscuity lend themselves better, in my mind, to Southern California (and I doubt many of you disagree), the more family-oriented Bay Area throws up a contrast to Anna and Frankie’s behavior. Perhaps take this with a grain of sea salt – my impressions of California and its culture are limited to a two-week visit a few summers ago and plenty of movies.
Twenty Boy Summer is just okay. It’s what comes to mind when I think of beach reads, though that may be because a good deal of it takes place on a beach. It’s less light-hearted than the cover suggests, less dark than the summary and blurbs suggest. My main concern comes from the “lesson” Ockler inserts, but for readers who can look past that, this might not be the worst way to spend a few hours.
❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤