Book Review: Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler

Fifteen-year-old Anna Reiley had her greatest, most secret wish fulfilled on her birthday when her best-friend-who’s-a-boy Matt kissed her.  Although Anna is ecstatic that something is finally happening between her and the boy she’s loved forever, it’s also a complicated situation: Matt is Anna’s best friend Frankie’s older brother, and the three of them are a trio of best friends with a lot of history.  Matt asks Anna to keep their new relationship a secret until he can tell Frankie himself, and she reluctantly agrees.  When tragedy strikes and Matt dies, Anna is stuck with a secret that she feels obligated to keep from her broken-hearted best friend.

A year later, the two girls are heading off to Zanzibar Beach with Frankie’s parents for a three-week vacation.  Frankie is determined to help Anna lose the albatross around her neck (a.k.a. her virginity), and so she cooks up a plan for them to meet 20 boys in hopes that at least one of them will be the vehicle for said virginity loss.  Anna isn’t so keen on the plan, but she feels trapped by her secret.  What she doesn’t plan on is finding a boy that she might maybe could like a little bit, and if she can like someone else, does that mean she’s forgetting about Matt?

I’m not the first reader who has Dr. Wesley Scroggins to thank for introducing me to this book.  If he hadn’t made a huge stink out of trying to get the book banned from the schools and libraries in his home state of Missouri, a lot of us wouldn’t have ever picked it up.  In his op-ed piece (and subsequent school board presentation), Scroggins takes issue with three books in particular: Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (rape as “soft pornography”), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (profane and containing instances of homosexuality), and Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer.

Scroggins’s biggest beef with Ockler’s debut novel is as follows, in his own words:
“This book glorifies drunken teen parties, where teen girls lose their clothes in games of strip beer pong. In this book, drunken teens also end up on the beach, where they use their condoms to have sex.”

The phrasing of Scroggins complaint is so awkward that one can’t help but wonder what, exactly, he uses his condoms for, but it’s sort of irrelevant: Scroggins’s outrage was my catalyst, and I immediately requested a copy from the library so that I could experience firsthand the sheer audacity of these teenagers who practice safe sex.  I’m so glad that I did, because this is the best book that I’ve read in a good long while.

Sarah Ockler’s novel is so good that it makes me wish her publisher had chosen a better title.  It’s not even that the title is bad, because it isn’t, but it evokes images of a breezy, fluffy summer read.  Anna and Frankie’s journey is not breezy, and it’s certainly not fluffly.  The book is the kind that sucks you in and doesn’t let go until you’ve finished the book and have been reduced to a breathless, blubbering mess.  It is that good.

Anna narrates the story with an intensely personal style and provides keen observations in a straightforward way.  The book provides one of the most honest portrayals of grief, friendship and loss this reader has ever seen.  Ockler’s prose is beautiful, her descriptions of the ocean are pitch-perfect, and the book is full of beautiful sentences that beg to be turned into quotes.

One could argue that there is nothing more heartbreaking than first love barely realized before it’s cut short by tragedy, and that’s exactly what’s at work in this story.  Matt and Anna have only a few pages together at the beginning of the novel, but Ockler’s talented enough to structure this so that the reader is immediately connected and invested.  Even though the ghost of Matt lives on in both of the girls, the loss that is felt is almost palpable.

When Matt dies, the reader immediately understands the predicament that Anna finds herself in.  Should she protect Frankie from what Matt never got to tell her, or should she try to explain how she feels about him?  What’s more, is there even anything to tell?  Because Anna is working so hard to protect the fragile Frankie, she’s never able to fully deal with her own grief.

Anna’s narration provides the reader with a full array of the complexities of her emotions.  Her secret is eating her up inside, but she keeps it in, choosing instead to write one-sided letters to Matt in her journal.  Anna’s dilemma when she meets cute boy Sam on vacation is clear as well: if she can have feelings for Sam, does that mean she forgets about Matt?  Is there a statute of limitations when it comes to cheating on a ghost?

It’s not just the character of Anna that is so wonderful in this story, though.  Frankie is also full of depth and flaws and is yet sympathetic.  The drastic changes she undergoes after the death of her brother present themselves in her behavior and physical appearance, as well as her tendency to boss Anna around.  But it is also visible in her inability to say what she means or wants to say—she literally cannot say what she means because she is forever making up and misusing words.  It is these kinds of details that make the story so real.

One final detail worth mentioning is how Ockler handles the summer romance of Anna and Sam.  Sam is a sweet, cute boy who is kind to Anna.  Their slow-building attraction and tender interactions with each other are the epitome of a summer romance, and the fact that they both know that their relationship ends with Anna’s vacation lends a realness to the story that many other YA novels often choose to avoid.

Ockler’s book is one that moved me so profoundly that I ordered my own copy as soon as I finished it.  I intend to recommend this book to nearly everyone I know.  I cannot wait to see what Ockler has in store for readers next.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler

  1. I just read this one for the second (or is it third?) time. Absolutely love it and as much as I like the title I do wish they’d chosen something else. I feel weird recommending a book with that title to people in my life. It’s an absolutely amazing book. I wasn’t totally on board with the Sam/Anna relationship (at least, not in this reading of it) but I think that’s probably because I connected SO WELL (too well?) with Matt in those first few pages. I want a book about him, lol. PREQUEL, ANYONE?

    But yes. Love love love love love. In rereading I was surprised at just how much of this book was about teen sex but also how well the topic was handled, especially as it tied into the summer and Anna’s grief. Love. This. Book.

    • Clementine Bojangles says:

      It’s embarrassing that I’m replying to your comment now, Jordyn, but I didn’t see it before this morning. So it goes.

      I feel the same way you do about Sam and Anna/Matt and Anna. What that says to me is how skillfully Ockler creates the relationship of Matt and Anna in such a short time. I have never connected to characters so quickly. It’s pretty remarkable.

      Also, I agree about the title. I’m making my mom read it when she’s on break this winter, and when I told her about it, I remember saying the title and then really quickly adding, “But it’s not what it sounds like I swear it’s amazing!” She’s an English professor and while I think she’ll really enjoy the book, I still feel like I have to qualify it with her before she reads it.

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