Dessen, and it's for good reason: she's a well-respected author who develops characters with dimension, insight, distinct voices, and she can sweep a reader into her world. She has a bit of a magical touch.
I'm pretty pleased to say that debut author Amanda Howells may have just tread onto this territory, too, with her The Summer of Skinny Dipping. This will have mega Dessen appeal and beyond that comparison, it is a title that will appeal to fans of Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer and Jenny Han's The Summer I Turned Pretty and It's Not Summer without You. We have the summer romance here, but there's more depth and weight to the story, making it one that will stand out longer than just the three short months of summer.
Mia and her family are spending the summer with their cousins in Southampton, on the beach. It's been a few years since Mia's been there, but in the past, she and her cousin Corinne had been close. When Mia and her family arrive, though, they're met with snobbery and pretentiousness. Corinne is now too good for Mia, and when Mia's best friend, Gen, she charms everyone but Mia.
Mia's worried about the summer now: it would be a show of who can outdo who and who can out drink and out party who. She wasn't into the scene like Corinne or Gen, both of whom boasted of the best clothes, best friends, and best parties. But when Mia is tricked by them at one of the parties, she falls into the path of Simon, a boy who would help her fully come into herself over the course of the summer.
While this may sound like your typical summer romance, it's not. There's depth to the story: Mia struggles to accept who she is and struggles with whether or not she should act a different way to fit into the ideal mold her cousin wants her to be. In the event of each, she does things she might regret, and those things will inevitably come back to hurt her.
And Simon -- the geeky guy next door -- is the light that helps guide her. There's a lot of play on The Great Gatsby here, and the use of light in the story is well-woven. He's a fully-fleshed character, though at times I felt his entire history wasn't as strong as Mia's. We know his father is controlling, but some of the events that happened didn't quite convince me.
At the end of the summer, something awful happens. I won't spoil it, obviously, but it took me a bit by surprise as a reader. I wasn't expecting it, and I am not sure how I felt about it. It seemed like a plot device to end the story, but at the same time, it fit the character and was entirely reasonable. I'm going to be thinking this one over for a bit.
My biggest disappointment in the book surfaces from a trend in all of these books: why is it that the guy is always what makes the girl figure out who she is? I'm a fan of a sweet romance story, but I've seen over and over that the girl -- who was otherwise a strong, smart, and interesting character prior to meeting the boy -- always seems to feel better about herself or smarter or stronger after she's been with this guy. He's the transforming agent, not her, even though it really could be her as the transforming agent. But rather than attribute her strength to herself, in the end, it always goes back to the guy.
The Summer of Skinny Dipping didn't leave me wanting more at the end. This is a solid standalone novel that will hook readers any time of year. Hand this one over to your Dessen, Han, and Ockler fans without hesistation -- though it's mostly clean, beware there is drinking and drug use (though Mia is adament in her disapproval of this).
* Review copy picked up at PLA, where I got to meet Amanda Howells.