Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson

Taylor Edwards is a fairly typical high-ambition seventeen-year-old, despite being the ‘talentless’ middle child; her older brother is determined to be a lawyer like their father while her younger sister is similarly determined to be a ballet dancer, while she spends her summers in language immersion courses and oceanography internships.

Or at least she has for the past five years, since she did A Terrible Thing to her BFF, Lucy, and the boy they both had a crush on, the summer that they were all twelve. Tragically, her father has been diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer on the day of Taylor’s birthday in May; the family decides that they will spend one last summer together in their summer home in the Poconos.

…which means that Taylor must confront both Lucy and Henry, in addition to being tossed into the deep end of her first summer job, all in addition to spending as much time with her father as she can in his last few weeks of life. (This is the ‘second chance’ of the title: making up with her friends, whom she dissed five years previously when they were all twelve: she fell in crush with the cute boy with whom her BFF had already decided she was going to fall in love that summer…but didn’t tell either of them about BFF’s feelings for Cute Boy.) Oh, and take in the dog left behind by the long-term renters who’d departed only a week or so before the family arrives.

The novel ends, as it inevitably must, with the death of the father, but the children have grown and developed personally; Taylor has made up with Lucy and Henry, Warren has branched out from his studies to court a girl who is herself studying to be a veterinarian and Gelsey learns how to make friends and have sleepovers.

Overall, it’s a good straightforward ‘teen angst’ book for kids who’ve outgrown Judy Blume; it has no fantasy elements, no supernatural characters, no magic. Just a family facing the death of the father/husband, told from the perspective of the middle girl. It does have a certain degree of “rich white girl” problems, set as it is in a town of largely summer residents escaping the heat of The Big City, but dealing with the death of a parent is fairly universal. In that regard, it’s appropriate for a range of readers. In some ways, I wish Matson had chosen to concentrate on either the father’s illness or the children’s maturation during the summer, as she has to split the book between the two processes, and I’m left feeling a bit like she gave them both short shrift. That said, they would not have had the opportunity had their father NOT had pancreatic cancer, as that’s why they’ve all come together back to the Poconos. Otherwise, they would have just continued on their paths of separation.

What to read next? If it’s the “death of a parent” aspect, I’d suggest Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light, for kids who liked the straightforwardness of this book plus elements of friendship/boys, or Patrick Ness/Siobhan Dowd’s A Monster Calls, for kids who prefer books with a supernatural element.

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