My rating: 9.5/10. Every time I re-read this book I love it all over again. I know I tend to overuse the term “evocative”, but if there’s any novel I’ve ever read that qualifies fully for that term, this is it. The young author started working on this book when she herself was seventeen; it was published when she was twenty. With the expected flaws due to the youth of the author, it does not stand up well to pure literary analysis, but as an emotionally appealing record of a teenage love affair it is a delicate little masterpiece.
I’m sitting here trying to think of other titles to compare it to, and I keep coming up with I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, a book I love so much that I’m avoiding reviewing it because I don’t quite know how to put into words its very special quality and appeal.
Though the setting is completely different, and much more realistic – could I Capture the Castle be described as plausible? – I don’t think so! – Seventeenth Summer has a similar mood and delicacy of feeling. Innocent, sensual, agonizingly evocative of a girl’s romantic and yes – I’ll say it – sexual awakening – though anyone expecting the protagonist to actually go “all the way” will be shamefully disappointed. It’s all in there, though.
Maybe a girl’s, or a woman’s book, more than a man’s? Or maybe not. Anyway, I like it – a lot – and confidently recommend it to my fellow readers, at least those of you who think highly of Dodie Smith, Rumer Godden and their ilk.
One early summer evening, in the small city of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, the late 1930s, seventeen-year-old Angeline (Angie) Morrow, newly graduated from her all-girls Academy, catches a smile from public high-school grad Jack Duluth. A few days later they meet again; Angie is barefoot in the garden picking early radishes, and Jack, driving his father’s bakery delivery truck, stops to inquire about her mother’s bread order. Jack is as taken with Angie as she is with him; he invites her sailing, and the summer love affair is on. And off again, and then on, with all of the teenage angst and glorious peaks and abysmal valleys of emotion and “Does he like me? Really like me? And how much do I like him? And what’s next?”
As the flowers in the garden bud, flower, and reach their blowsy peak in late summer, the love affair follows its predicable natural course. The ending is not as expected, and is, in my opinion, perfectly fitted to what has gone before.
How much should I go into detail here? The internet abounds with reviews; it’s not hard to find a complete dissection of this novel with a minimum of effort. Somehow it has ended up on many high school reading lists, and has suffered far much over-analysis and way too many reluctant-student book reports.
Ignore all of these. Ignore the comments that “nothing happens in this book”, and “Angie is impossibly innocent”, and “how could a little thing like table manners condemn Jack if she really liked him?”, and “the metaphors are so obvious – tomatoes and radishes and poppies – we get it!”, and ” gee, they sure drink a lot of tea and eat a lot of ice cream”, and “what’s the matter with the mother, and why can’t her daughters talk to her?”, and “what about Lorraine (Angie’s older sister) and her parallel love affair with the abusive and manipulative Martin?”, and “what the heck is that ending all about – don’t we get to know what happens?!”
Ignore all of these. Pick up the book, remind yourself that the author was just seventeen herself when she first put these words on paper – because for a little while you will probably be thinking “What the heck? This is so lame!” – and surrender yourself in full to Angie and Jack’s golden summer of personal discovery, restrained passion, and first true love.