Judy Blume’s ‘Summer Sisters’ Is Full of Things You Never Noticed
Although the subject matter in Judy Blume's books may occasionally be cause for controversy, there are a few matters related to the author in which there's nothing to debate: a) she is the best; b) without her books, none of us would've survived adolescence, and c) while all her novels are fantastic, none of them are quite as good as Summer Sisters , her gorgeous, sprawling love story about female friendship, a book that, this year, turned 16 (!) years old.
I remember the first time that I read Summer Sisters well. I was 15, a sophomore in high school, and had grabbed the book off my mother's shelf one weekend afternoon out of curiosity—what was this Judy Blume book I hadn't read that looked decidedly more adult than the copies of Deenie and Blubber I had laying around my room? Five hours later, I finished the book. Five years later, I practically know it by heart.
There's just something about Summer Sisters that makes it so special, so important. It's the rare piece of fiction that considers the friendships between women as the complex, emotional, intimate relationships they are, never belittling them or tearing them apart because "women never get along." The book knows well how consuming these friendships can be, how the invitation of a popular girl to stay at her home can forever alter the course of a wallflower's life. All of Blume's books have relatable elements, but in Summer Sisters , every page feels like a personal message, telling you, the reader: Judy Blume understands.
Recently, I re-read the novel, the first time I'd done so in years. I remembered some things well — the vividness in which Blume describes summers on Martha's Vineyard, the dreaminess of Bru, Vix's (and, later, Caitlin's) lover — but a surprise amount of other elements felt brand-new. Had Vix really thought that? Had Caitlin actually done those things? Had Sharkey always been so strange? Because I can't be the only Blume fan who's forgotten some key parts of one of her most famous books over the years, here are 10 things you never noticed about Summer Sisters :
How Strange the Names Are
Most characters in Blume books have relatively normal names: Margaret, Sally, Peter. Sure, there are a few exceptions — Fudge comes to mind — but for the most part, the author's chosen names are never the most memorable part of her books. Not Summer Sisters , though. During the course of the novel, we meet Vix, Tawny, Sharky, Lamb, Von, and a little girl named Somers Mayhew. Some of those are nicknames, but even still, Blume was clearly itching to branch out from traditional monikers that year.
How Similar The Beginning is to Beaches
When Vix first meets Caitlin that day in 6th grade, it's eerily reminiscent to the fateful meeting of another female literary duo, Beaches' C.C. and Hillary. Vix, of course, is Hillary, the shy daughter of a disapproving parent who found herself wowed by a colorful, exciting peer. In general, the two books only share a few broad similarities — lifelong friendships, divisive class differences — but in its first few chapters, they're practically one and the same.
How Bad a Parent Phoebe Is
Phoebe, Caitlin's mother, is not the villain in the story. In fact, she's not even close; in a large ensemble, she's a small character, only garnering a mention every hundred pages or so. Yet whenever Phoebe does come up, it's never for a good reason. A pre-teen Caitlin boasts with pride that Phoebe "loves having summers off from being a mother," and that the extent of their communication while she lives with her father is a postcard every few months; later, Phoebe vents that “ten months is enough to be a parent," and wonders if she should be doing more to you know, raise her kid. Answer: yes, Phoebe, you should. A little guidance never hurt anyone, especially when that person is Caitlin, your flight risk of a daughter.
How Sad It Is
It's easy to forget, like I did, that Summer Sisters isn't just about figuring out friendships and the beauty of Martha's Vineyard in July. Much of the novel is actually quite sad, whether it be Nathan's death, Lanie's pregnancy, or Caitlin's gay friends' succumbing to AIDS. In one scene, Vix listens quietly as a terrified Caitlin begs her to make a suicide pact so she doesn't have to die alone before, as she says, she's "ugly and old and no one wants me." Plus, you know, there's the whole nervous breakdown/possible drowning towards the novel's end. How did we block that out?
And Also How Sexual
Blume has never been one to shy away from sexuality in her novels, and Summer Sisters is about as explicit as they come. Vix and Caitlin's use of their "Powers" is the scene most people remember, but there's also Vix's romance with Bru, Caitlin's descriptions of her adventures in Europe, even Aunt Dorset's musings about vibrators and Von. With all that material, Summer Sisters practically makes Forever look PG.
How Grossed Out You Are By Caitlin
From the very first page, Summer Sisters makes it clear that Caitlin is dirty, and not just in the sex-related definition. Greeting Vix in the airport, a 20-something Caitlin is "barefoot as usual;" as a pre-teen, Caitlin spends a summer hardly washing her underwear, let alone changing it. "Vix told Caitlin if she didn't start wearing clean underpants she was going to get the Dingleberry Award," Blume writes. Ew.
How Nostalgic It'll Make You
Seeing as I read Summer Sisters as a teenager in 2008, I can't speak for this one myself, but I'm sure it applies to plenty of others. The novel takes place over the course of nearly 20 years, from the late '70s to the mid-'90s. Along the way, there are references to Abba, Geraldine Ferraro, the explosion of the Challenger, and the beginning of the AIDS crisis. It's the ultimate throwback.
How No Wedding Will Ever Be Worse than Caitlin and Bru's
The novel opens with, and later returns to, Caitlin informing Vix that she's marrying Vix's ex-boyfriend, and wants Vix to be the maid of honor. Not bad enough? The ceremony is held on Vix's 25th birthday, she's forced to hear all about how "sorry" everyone is that she has to be there, and she makes the biggest mistake of her life by sleeping with the groom the night before. So if you're complaining about having to attend yet another wedding/can't find the right dress/don't like the bride, just think: it could be worse.
How Frustrating (But Perfect) That Ending is
Before Inception, there was Summer Sisters . How will we never know whether Caitlin accidentally drowned, committed suicide, or orchestrated her own disappearance? Yes, it's a fitting end for the novel, and yes, it's all wonderfully done, but couldn't Blume just slip in a teeny, tiny answer next time she gives an interview? It'd give a lot of us (meaning: me) some much-needed closure.
How Ridiculous It Is That No One's Ever Made It Into a Movie
Look, don't get me wrong, I love Tiger Eyes. But of all of Blume's books, why is that the only one to ever have gotten made into a movie? That can't be right, you think. Certainly, there has to have been someone out there who was smart enough to at least adapt Summer Sisters , with its history-bound plot, expanse of characters, and relatable themes, for the screen. Unfortunately, there wasn't, and there doesn't seem to be any plans to rectify that mistake. Maybe one day that'll change — even Blume herself wants a Summer Sisters movie — but for now, we'll have to make do with re-reading the novel for the thousandth time. Hey, there are worse fates.
Images: Buena Vista; HBO