The Summer of Naked Swim Parties
by Jessica Anya Blau
Harper Perennial, 2008
The world of Jessica Anya Blau's first novel, a humorous coming-of-age story
set in Santa Barbara, California, in the 1970s, is a world seemingly entirely
peopled with teenagers, from the 14-year-old protagonist, Jamie, to her 16-year-old sister, to Jamie's friends and boyfriend, and even Jamie's parents
and their friends, who while not technically teenagers, are stuck in a sort of
time-warp world of no responsibility or consequences. Perhaps it's fitting
then that, like a teenager, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties is sincere in its
convictions, if a little fuzzy on what exactly those convictions are.
The book takes us through the summer of 1976, an awkward summer for Jamie, who
has developed a body her mind has't quite grown into yet, and who is more
aware than ever of the strangeness of her free-loving, pot-smoking, parents
who like to swim—and, yes, sometimes cook—in the nude. She also feels herself
drifting apart from her two closest friends, Tammy and Debbie, the kind of
vapid and thoughtlessly cruel girls who give expecting parents nightmares, and
whose conversations are along the lines of, "You know, it really upsets me
sometimes. I, like, come up from a wave and my hair might be scooped back just
so and I have on the best suit, like that white one with ties on the sides,
but then I know that I look washed-out because by lips are so pale!"
Adding to the awkwardness, Jamie also has her first sexual encounters in the
course of the summer, a series of expectedly bumbling searches for the
elusive, but according to her friends and mother, wonderful, orgasm. While the
sex doesn't live up to Jamie's expectations, neither does her first boyfriend,
Flip (as if the name alone wasn't disappointment enough), a seventeen-year-old
surfer who Jamie's sister calls Flip-Flop "because he has the brains of one."
Like most teenagers, Jamie is consumed with issues that would seem trivial to
anyone over the age of 18, and Blau is skilled at capturing just how important
those issues can seem to someone stuck at that hormonally-driven and confusing
stage of life. But there are plenty of nontrivial issues that crop up as well
and even a tragic death that summer, which hangs momentarily like a rain cloud
over a party. The tragedies the story is most focused on, however, are the
fourteen-year-old kind: the loss of a boyfriend and the drifting apart of
childhood friends. The inevitable decisions Jamie must face about Flip and her
friends are aptly painful even if obvious; although it's disappointing that in
the end, it's not Jamie who makes the decisions but just accepts the decisions
they make for her.
The brightest and most humorous parts of the book come when Jamie's parents
briefly adopt a man they meet on a camping trip in Yosemite named Dog Feather—who is about as authentic as a Cheez Whiz—and when Jamie and her sister Renee are getting along well enough to turn the combined force of their cynical wit on their parents. In these moments both the author and the characters demonstrate their savvy and their potential.
In the end, what we hope for Jamie is what we'd hope for our own teenage selves—the chance to stay afloat long enough to realize that what we thought was the end of the world was really just the beginning of our understanding of
Previous Home Next