Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book Review: The Telltale Summer of Tina C. by Lila Perl (1975)

Tina Carstairs is twelve years old, and considers herself a Sad Soul. She and her friends have even formed a club - the Saturday Sad Souls Club - devoted to the improvement of their most egregious flaws. But even though Tina has a twitch that flares up when she’s angry or anxious, that’s not the biggest of her problems. Her mother walked out on the family, moved away, and met a new man. Her father is planning to marry an overly sweet young woman named Rosebud. And Tina’s friends have invited a new girl into their club despite the fact that she doesn’t seem to have any flaws. The only thing that might save Tina’s summer from total disaster is Johann, a sixteen-year-old Dutch tourist she meets in New York City.

The illustration on its front cover and even the blurb on the back of it reduce this book to a frivolous story about a misunderstood adolescent. I realized very early on in the story, however, that this book has much more depth than that. The Telltale Summer of Tina C. is a well-written slice-of-life story about growing up in the 1970s suburbs. Though Tina’s parents are divorced, she is troubled by the idea of blended families, and outright disturbed by the fact that her mother’s new boyfriend does the cooking, while she works all day. Though Tina has some angst - about her twitch and the boys who tease her for it - her life is pretty well sheltered until she has the opportunity to visit New York. The story arc really resembles a coming of age story more than anything else, and Tina is a well-developed, flawed, but lovable protagonist whose emotional experiences are more important than the individual points of the plot.

As I read, I found myself wondering how a twelve-year-old girl of 1975 might react to certain things about this story. Would it seem unusual, or dangerous, for example, for a girl Tina’s age to spend time with a sixteen-year-old boy in a museum, without adult supervision? In 2012, parents would go nuts, I think, imagining all the ways in which an older boy might take advantage of a younger girl, but was society the same way back then? Or did parents feel safer? I also wondered if the underlying discomfort with divorce and remarriage reflected the author’s attitude, or Tina’s, and whether the average reader of this book would have felt the same sense of confusion and dread, or if she would take it in better stride.

I really don’t think a book like this one could be published today. It’s so innocent, and I can imagine a 21st century twelve-year-old finding it tedious and slow-moving. On the other hand, it’s one of the best Apple paperbacks I’ve ever read, and kids who are weary of the darkness of contemporary YA might like to give it a shot. It’s out of print, but copies are available online.

See more posts about this book at Cliquey Pizza: 80's teen book series & pop culture and New York Minknit.  Kirkus’s original review from 1975 is also available here.

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