Fifteen-year-old Haven’s life is changing too quickly for her comfort. Her father is getting remarried to the local meteorologist—the “Weather Pet,” as Haven’s mom calls her—and her older sister Ashley is about to have a wedding of her own, to a guy Haven believes couldn’t suit her less. He’s straight-laced and boring, nothing like Sumner Lee, Ashley’s first love. When Sumner was around, he always included Haven. Even Ashley was nicer to her, and the five year age gap between the sisters didn’t seem so wide.
When Sumner comes back to town, Haven sees one last thread of her past to cling to. But as the summer goes on, she begins to realize the past might not have been exactly how she remembered it.
THAT SUMMER is Sarah Dessen’s debut, published in 1996. She was around my age when she wrote it, so rereading it as a new MFA graduate was a very different experience than my first time reading it. Sarah’s prose feels different from her later books, longer paragraphs and sharp word choices that remind me of what I saw in my own workshops.
The plot itself is very quiet, more internal than external conflict. It’s about Haven dealing with all the changes around her and beginning to grow up herself. It’s not like the “high concept” (sometimes gimmicky) books that are selling in YA today, but it rings true in a way some of today’s books don’t. And it’s exactly what I want to write.
When I read THAT SUMMER the first time I didn’t use GoodReads yet, but I imagine I would’ve rated it three or four stars. There’s no swoony romance for our protagonist (she watches her sister’s relationships and hears stories about her friend’s new boyfriend) and she’s a bit of a passive character. But now that I’m older and more experienced with storytelling, I appreciate Haven’s story. She’s passive at the beginning because everything is happening to her without her consent: her parents’ divorce, her father’s new marriage, her sister’s wedding. But as she grows throughout the story, she takes ownership of what she can and can’t control. It’s a story about letting go of the past and growing into the future. The book went up to five stars in my eyes this time.
THAT SUMMER is a solid book of Sarah’s and should not be overlooked.