Summer Sisters

Alissa Lara Quart reviews 'Summer Sisters' by Judy Blume.

Published June 18, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Judy Blume's third adult novel, "Summer Sisters," is being marketed to those of us who gobbled down her popular teen novels in the 1970s and '80s. It's a canny promotional move, but not for the reasons Blume might hope. Although it has ostensibly matured, the Blume voice that fills "Summer Sisters" is as juvenile -- and as lovably crass -- as ever. In her 1970 classic "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret," she had the title character plead: "I just told my mother I want a bra. Please help me grow God. You know where." In "Summer Sisters" we get an adult woman who thinks to herself: "She fucked up today, big time, taking her clothes off that way in front of the kid."

In "Summer Sisters," middle-aged women exult in being ogled on college campuses. There's a slew of horny interior monologues by adolescent boys: "The way she taunts him when she's in the outdoor shower, using her hands, not a washcloth. Her hand on her perfect little tits. Her hands on her soapy pussy ... Sure he'll come ... any second now." After only a few three-page chapters, the Blume lexicon will be again as familiar as it was in 1981. Her 1975 novel "Forever" gave us a penis named Ralph. In 1998, the sweaty, sexy friendship between two teen girls -- the "summer sisters" of the title -- leads to sexplay called "the Power." There's even something called a "Dingleberry Award."

The saga of "Summer Sisters" unfolds over decades, starting with the summers two characters named Caitlin and Vix spend with Caitlin's family and step-family on Martha's Vineyard. Vix is prudent while Caitlin is imaginative and (we are told repeatedly) so pretty she makes men "drool." The daughter of an upper-class hippie father and an absent, Erica Jong-like mother, Caitlin has a mantra -- NBO, or never be ordinary.

Blume renders her characters' lives in an immaculate version of women's magazine writing ("Caitlin, as she already knew, was a latter day Zelda Fitzgerald with castanets"). The notes on bygone bourgeois fashions are the book's most "adult" passages. Yet despite the novel's interest in status, Blume crowns not-so-stylish Vix as the book's main character. This shouldn't be surprising. Blume was one of the key figures of the teen lit revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when "problem novels" dealing with subjects like pregnancy and inner-city life replaced swoony romances and astringent, character-building tales. There's some awkwardness in the way that this frothy Vineyard tale is interspliced with Young Adult "problem novel" scenes of Vix's hard-bitten working-class mother, her beloved palsied brother and teen mother sister, all of whom are painted in Dickensian misery.

When I first read Blume's books in the early '80s, I liked the dirty parts, but I also felt freed by her ventriloquism of preteen emotions, how she articulated the humiliating, unsayable stuff. In "Summer Sisters," Blume still can speak for teens. It's the grown-ups whose thoughts seem so crude and truncated. Like her pubescent productions, "Summer Sisters" is a ripping good read, though as Blume might put it, it's more child than woman.

By Alissa Lara Quart

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