Love lessons from teenage summer reads

Sophie McKay 21 July 2022

Sophie McKay revisists the love stories that shaped her teenage years, searching for the hope and romanticism of the summers of her youth

The summers of my teenage years were peppered with pilfered cider, unrequited crushes and a voracious consumption of romantic literature. I took to eating oranges with black coffee after reading Bonjour Tristesse and began the earnest wait for my love affair with a Communist after discovering Nancy Mitford. But perhaps the book that had the greatest impact on my teenage summer self was Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters. It was the sexiest book I had ever read, returning to it summer after summer. In fact, there is one sex scene in it which often springs to my mind every time I see peonies (it’s absolutely worth looking up).

Summer Sisters is a coming-of-age story set on Martha’s Vineyard about Vix and Caitlin, who are close female friends. I was completely compelled by the scenes of sweaty encounters behind sand dunes and the consuming love affairs. It filled my teenage self with hopes for my romantic future.

Sand duens

Judy Blume's legacy

Blume has recently re-captured headlines, with the fact she is finally allowing her work to transfer to the big screen, as well as a documentary about the author herself. Blume’s books have received significant protest and censorship over the years, but she has been a voice for many, many adolescents and young people. Her work has dealt with the issues of puberty, death, sexual awakening and family dynamics.

"She captures all of the texture of being young and the excitement and anxiety that can bring"

As a teenage girl, I felt that few writers managed to convey the particular nuances of a damaging family dynamic, the small moments of broken meals and closed doors, the requisite sense of fear and lack of gravity they can bring, as described in Here’s To You, Rachel Robinson. She captures all of the texture of being young and the excitement and anxiety that can bring. Her adult work is arguably less known, however. 

Summer Sisters and teenage love

Summer Sisters is one of her few books aimed entirely at adults. Blume’s work is always relatable, it is always an absolute lifeline to a teenage girl hanging out of a suburban window smoking a cigarette she has stolen from a packet in the kitchen, wondering if some boy will just call her back. But in this particular book, she manages to surpass herself. The story focuses on the deep and intimate friendship of Vix and Caitlin. Vix is Caitlin’s contemporary at school, whom Caitlin invites to spend the summer with her on Martha’s Vineyard. This then becomes an annual tradition. The book—which was published in 1998—is set across the 1970s and 1980s. As the girls age, they experiment with make up to ABBA, or stand in line to watch Jaws.

Martha's Vineyard

Summer Sisters is set on the American island of Martha's Vineyard

Summer Sisters is a love story of several parts; there are the central love stories at its heart, which rotate around the two women and their love interests (Bru and Von, who they initially meet at the fairground as teenagers). But it is also a love story about the intensity of female friendship

Revisiting old stories

Now, as a woman in my mid-thirties, I am more struck by how dark the book is, and how sad. And also how incredibly true to life. The hurts and disappointments, the betrayals, the inability of some of the characters to move past old flames, or the fact that love almost never conquers all. Blume’s book feels truly coming of age; the more we age with the characters, the truer they become. Just like them, the older we become the more damage we accumulate. It is easy at this stage in my life to feel jaded and cynical when it comes to love and romance. 

But love relies on both hope and realism. Is there something to be said, then, for returning to these books with empathy towards our younger selves? By recollecting the joy of these teenage reads is it possible to re-inject the hope and romanticism that stretched through the long weeks and suburban parks of my teenage summers?

"Love relies on both hope and realism"

Literature of course is a wonderful way for us to find out who we are, who we might be and what we hope for. By keeping on good terms with the books that mattered to us at certain points in our lives it seems we can manage to keep on terms with who we were at that time. So, this summer I am planning to pick up these old teenage favourites, and return to the excitement of finding someone who writes so candidly and openly about love, romance and sex. And by re-immersing myself in this world, I expect I can re-engage with the optimism of my teenage self; smoking hanging out of a window, safe in the knowledge that those three things still very much matter and very much exist. 

Read more: Alexis Caught: Books that changed my life

Read more: Why Persuasion's Anne Elliot is a fan favourite

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter