One Crazy Summer

Immediately engaging, fast moving, and appealingly easy to read
Ann Brashares Sigrid Estrada

“The Whole Thing

Ann Brashares
Delacorte, $18.99

Summer, Wainscott, family weirdness. In “The Whole Thing Together” the young-adult novelist Ann Brashares of “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” series fame is back with her suite of strong suits showing. 

The book is immediately engaging, fast moving, and appealingly easy to read. All of these hold through the book’s conclusion in spite of a somber fork in the narrative road. It’s light and breezy meets situation tragedy.

“The Whole Thing Together” is a roundup of the drama befalling a 21st century blended-type family over the course of a summer. Issues, emotions, and decades-old dysfunctions abound. “The Brady Bunch” could never have seen these kinds of complications coming. 

The situational setup, worthy of the family chart at the beginning of the book, is everything here, so stay alert: Lila (a blond, beautiful hippie-type who comes from old money and grew up summering in Wainscott) and Robert (a high-powered investment banker of Bengali heritage raised in Canada by loving adoptive parents) were married briefly but divorced and remain stridently bitter and estranged. They share three daughters ages 19, 21, and 22. They also share joint custody, in a week-on-week-off arrangement, of a large summer house on Georgica Pond in Wainscott. (“How?” the real-estate realists among you might ask. Brashares does not show us a copy of the deed, so you guys will just have to use your imaginations.) 

That way of doing joint custody, where the kids stay in the family home but the parents come and go according to a custody plan, is called “birdnesting,” by the way, only perhaps it does not usually apply to summer houses on Georgica Pond or parents who have in no way come to terms with each other. But this book is written for a young-adult audience, best for ages 14 and up, and that group is less likely to harbor real estate-related disbelief, right? 

Meanwhile, both Lila and Robert are remarried, and each has a 17-year-old child: Ray, son of Lila; Sasha, daughter of Robert. These two individuals live in the same room in the shared house on Georgica Pond, Robert one week, Sasha the next, and so on as the house’s joint custody demands. These two also share their three older half sisters: Mattie, a snarky beauty who no one expects much of; Quinn a green-thumbed free spirit whose understanding everyone relies on, and Emma, a type-A checker-off of accomplishments whose directions everyone follows. Sasha and Ray have each lived with their sisters back home in New York City (Sasha) and in Brooklyn (Ray), where joint custody is also maintained. But because of the bitterness and separateness sustained by their not-shared parents, Ray and Sasha have never met. While this circumstance surely stresses the boundaries of plausibility, Ms. Brashares depicts the rancor between Lila and Robert with numerous details, and the reader will more or less enter the logic of the novel.  

Amid a liberal scattering of recognizable local businesses and local terrain, summer in Wainscott eventually brings the not-couple’s not-shared children together. The romantic direction in which Sasha and Ray’s relationship seems to move may be creepy to some readers — indeed it is fraught for the characters. There’s quite a bit of guilty talk, for example, from Ray’s point of view, about the Sasha-smell of the sheets in their not-at-the-same-time shared bed (Reader: Do not get stuck on the gross-out of no one changing the sheets between teenage-opposite-gender stays at the house or you will not be able to read the book). 

There’s a prohibition around this relationship well beyond the circumstances of the not-shared parents’ estrangement. Divorce and its ripples — family complications and convolutions — are part of the domestic landscape for many teen readers. It’s not always so clear who counts and who does not count as family. 

The book unfolds as a series of scenes pushing through the summer, the point of view shifting as third-person narration focuses on different characters in irregularly rotating turns. While Ray and Sasha’s story of meeting and forming a relationship initially seems central, it is churned under among concurrent narratives. The summer in question is also the moment for the youngest of the three shared half sisters, Mattie, to learn about her biological parentage and the moment for Emma, the oldest of the sisters, to become engaged. 

Events lead to an engagement party, which precipitates a crisis, which gives way to a tragedy: The family loses Quinn, cast throughout the novel in the role of binder, soother, the ultimate middle child. Her loss is spun here as the avenue toward forging commonality and healing family wounds, an extremely optimistic silver lining.

“The Whole Thing Together” is a patchwork in terms of narrative point of view; depth is not seriously attempted, and issues and emotions are covered in a glancing way, with a kind of extended sound-bite technique. The novel indicates more than truly plumbs the depths of complex ideas around family, but it’s an entertaining and accessible read, with the rolling, scenic quality of the narrative working to create a credible outline of the blended-type family dynamic. 

Many young people with parents who could not work it out, divorced, and continue not to work it out, will likely find something to relate to here. But if they don’t, there’s plenty of young-adult realistic fiction out there that features all kinds of families.

A visit to the East Hampton Library young-adult department should stand teen readers in good stead. Lisa Michne, head of young-adult services, runs a beautifully designed room just for high school students that is staffed and supervised seven days a week. Teen readers can find hangout space away from family dynamics, and book recommendations for the asking.

Evan Harris is the author of “The Art of Quitting.” She lives in East Hampton.