Cover Story: The Picture Came With the Frame
This photo is perfectly fine. And because it’s black and white, you know that this book is bona fide literature. But the picture doesn’t quite go with the story. Yes, there’s a beach, and yes, there are girl and boy characters, but there are absolutely no aquatic acrobatics. Like, based on this cover, The Great Godden is the name of a high diving act that tours the Atlantic boardwalk in the 1930s. And that is… not the case. (But I would definitely read that book.)
Every summer, our teenage narrator (whose name and gender are never revealed) heads from London to the old beach house with their parents and younger siblings. It’s always a halcyon kind of same, with lazy days of sand and ocean and naps, and spirited nights of group dinners where the kids sneak white wine from the table. But this year, everything changes with the arrival of Kit and Hugo Godden, dropped off like a ticking time bomb by their aging actress mother (think Moira Rose). Kit is a golden god, gorgeous and devilishly charming, while Hugo, silent and taciturn, prefers the shadows.
Though the youngest of the siblings, Alex and Tamsin, prefer the company of critters and horses, respectively, the beauty of the family, sixteen-year-old Mattie, instantly falls for Kit. So too does our narrator, but something–a blend of deference to Mattie’s feelings and a deeper instinct, perhaps–helps them to maintain a distance. But as the summer goes on, Kit’s magnetism only sharpens, and the Godden brothers’ presence shifts the easy breezes of the family vacation into ominous storm clouds, threatening a torrential downpour of change.
BFF Charm: Big Sister
Not knowing the name or gender of this protagonist had absolutely no bearing on my immediate connection with them, thanks to Meg Rosoff’s nuanced portrait of a person navigating love and identity for the first time. It also helps that our narrator has an engaging voice and piercing wit–at one point, when Mattie is especially hungry for attention, they describe her as “the original tree that falls in the forest.” And then there’s this moment, which legit made me cheer and chortle at the same time:
Tennis, as we know, was not my sport. Sport, in fact, was not my sport. So when I took my place cross-court from Kit, six foot two glowing inches of muscle and stealth, the best I could do was to lose with grace. I had no intention of losing with grace.
My affection for the protagonist did nothing, however, to dampen my urge to grab them by the shoulders on several occasions and tell them to stay the HELL away from Kit Godden! Hugo is clearly the better option, even though he’s surly AF, and our protagonist is too young, too sheltered, to really see it. (Then again, if I was the age of our narrator, I too would be blinded by Kit’s splendor, so big sis shouldn’t judge.) Regardless of my frustration, I never stopped rooting for them to take the reins and actively steer their life, and it was gratifying to watch them wrestle with doubts and fears and come out stronger on the other side.
Swoonworthy Scale: 2
Uh, I think I’ve already made my stance on Kit clear, but I’m throwing in a few points for Hugo, because it’s obvious to everyone but the entire population of this book that he’s the superior brother. That’s admittedly a low bar, and Hugo has some issues, but this also isn’t a love triangle situation, so I don’t know why I’m trying so hard to sell y’all on Hugo! My point is, this is a romance of the Gaga, a.k.a “bad,” variety.
Talky Talk: Poignant
As the story begins, Meg Rosoff whisks you away to a universal summer of salty, sunny days and the languid luxury of boredom. Yet beneath the glimmer of placidity runs a foreboding undercurrent, with flickers of unease and character interactions so charged, you’ll feel an electric tingle race down your arm. There is a pleasant sort of plainness to Rosoff’s style that marches right up to you, but there’s also a complexity slowly creeping and building behind it, and the bittersweetness of this combination is gorgeously haunting.
Speaking of masterful writing, the nameless and genderless protagonist is far from a gimmick. You might notice right away, or you might, like me, unconsciously project your own gender identity onto the narrator, which makes the character’s journey that much more resonant. No matter how you perceive the narrator, the core of them remains unchanged, and kudos to Rosoff for accomplishing such a feat.
Bonus Factor: Beach House
I am *obsessed* with this house, y’all. It’s incredibly old and creaky, with a tower (where the protagonist sleeps, LUCKY) and a widow’s walk (where the protagonist spies on people, RAD). Plus, it’s on a British beach, which just adds to the charm. It’s the kind of place that, if the family ever sold it, would instantly appear on Rosemary’s @houses.i.found.on.zillow Instagram account, and we’d all seriously consider pooling our money to buy it.
Bonus Factor: Charles Wallace
ILU ALEX! Both annoying and wise-beyond-his-years, Alex is the ideal younger brother. He sneaks wine and vomits! He doesn’t want any of your drama! He constantly recites bat facts! And best of all, he couldn’t care less about Kit Godden. Behold this amazing exchange between Kit and Alex, who is in the house crawl space:
“What are you doing under there?”
“Checking out the wildlife.” He [Alex] held up a small flashlight and shone it directly into Kit’s eyes. “Toads, newts, bugs. All sorts.”
“I’m not very good at biology.”
“It’s not biology,” Alex said with contempt. “It’s the world.”
IT’S THE WORLD, KIT. Now bugger off!
Relationship Status: Summer Lovin’
I like my beach reads like I like my beach cocktails–refreshing while packing a punch–so this book made for an excellent vacation fling. Whether I was basking in the sunshine of its idyllic dog days or enjoying the shade of its darker themes, I felt completely submerged in wave after wave of the story. But as with every summer, it turned colder, and that’s where it ends, so I told the book we could still be friends. (And I actually meant it.)
FTC Disclosure: I received a free e-copy of this book from Candlewick Press. I received neither money nor cocktails in exchange for this review.