There is a litmus test for whether you will potentially like This One Summer.
There is a difference between story and plot. True or false?
If you answered true, there is a strong likelihood you may find something to appreciate about this story. If you answered false, you probably shouldn't bother-- with the book or the rest of this review.
I’m going to discuss things that happen in this book without marking for spoilers. Since this is not a story that hinges on plot twists or revelations, and all of the scenes I discuss are up for interpretation, I don’t think knowing any of the events can ruin the experience. But this is your warning, just in case.
If there is anything more ambivalent than the transition from childhood into young adulthood, specifically for girls, I’ve yet to find it. The cultural expectations for girls are contradictory; it seems that girls are never too young to be sexualized, but female sexuality is always bad and dangerous. The development of their bodies is rarely perfectly in sync with their minds, often becoming womanly before they are prepared for it, though never too soon to be judged about it. These contradictions lie at the heart of This One Summer, though on the surface it just seems like traditional lit-fic fodder: a slow-burn story about a troubled middle class family on vacation.
Written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by her cousin Jillian Tamaki, This One Summer captures the last hurrah of childhood for a young girl named Rose. Her age is unspecified, but she’s on the cusp of young adulthood, probably somewhere around ten to twelve years old. Every year, Rose and her mother and father spend the summer at a lake house on Awago Beach, and every summer Rose meets up with her hippie friend Windy and they spend their lazy days on the beach, roaming the tiny town, or renting movies from the local convenience store.
The adult world is rapidly making itself visible to Rose, though she only catches what adults think she can’t hear. Her parents are constantly fighting, and it’s pretty obvious that her mom is suffering from severe depression, though Rose is too childishly self-centered to care about why. Her father is laid back and much more fun, so she always aligns herself with him, even when he leaves them behind at the beach house for a while for “work,” but really because he can’t deal with his wife’s issues. On top of that, the older teenagers in town are providing even more confusing glimpses into the mysterious world of grown-ups, with their raw, hormonal sexuality on full display.
Rose develops a crush on the older boy that runs the convenience store, which is complicated by the fact that he has apparently knocked up a local girl and refuses, vocally, to do anything about it. Fed on a diet of veiled comments, parental anxiety, and sexist pop culture, Rose has conflicting ideas about what it means to be a woman. Her instinct is to side with her crush, whom Windy christens The Dud, against the girl who he’s impregnated, and by extension she assumes that all the girls around her are “sluts” who “can’t take care of themselves.” For her, being female is beginning to mean being sad, being dependent, and needing to be saved.
There is a scene where Rose and Windy are watching an 80’s slasher flick, and Rose articulates her ingrained sexism by seizing on how useless the shrieking girls in the movie are, and how the men would probably be able to escape, if it wasn’t for having to save the helpless screamers. This is a fair assessment of those kinds of movies, but unfortunately it seems she extends that same attitude out into the real world, siding with The Dud and her father over the “neediness” of the pregnant girl and her own mother. When Windy calls her out for slut shaming other girls at the beach, Rose goes into a very teenage-like sulk, but at the same time, she seems to become a little bit more aware of her short-sighted perspective. She doesn’t make any overt “progress;” it isn’t a story with an ah-ha moment. But it is telling that when a disaster occurs late in the story, Rose instinctively shouts for her mother and not her father, and her mother is the one who comes through in the end.
Rose is a difficult protagonist, more observer than participant, and very quickly reaching the stage of adolescence that is the most obnoxious—the world-weary teenager with no actual life experience. But maybe this story resonated so much with me because I was Rose once. I remember, very distinctly, siding with heroes over heroines in innumerable stories because they were the doers and the girls were the waiters and the screamers. Some reviewers have taken the story to task for Rose’s slut shaming, and while I don’t like it personally, I do certainly understand it from a character perspective. The fact that Rose and Windy watch horror movies throughout the story subtly but effectively telegraphs the idea that they are being unconsciously indoctrinated into cultural beliefs surrounding womanhood. In the horror movie universe, all girls that have sex—even just once—are sluts and must die. Slut then translates into a word girls use whenever they are envious of something another girl has- a guy, popularity, boobs, whatever. Rose uses it as a talisman against becoming needy, and to fend off the jealousy she feels when she notices other girls with things she wants. I’m pretty sure I did that at her age as well, as much as I’d like to believe otherwise.
I think the Tamaki cousins have done something rather brilliant. Merging spare storytelling and stunning monochromatic art, they have created a story that is meditative and uneventful on the surface, but seething with subtext and inarticulate frustrations below. The end of summer and the end of girlhood merge in a symbolic forward motion that promises change, but whether that change is good or bad is left up to the reader, as the final pages close on an open-ended, ambivalent anti-climax. An awful lot like childhood.
(Cross-posted on Goodreads: This One Summer)