For a story to be engaging for a reader there must be a connection. Whether that connection comes via a relationship with the protagonist, antagonist, or plot, does not matter; simply that it exists to spur the reader on to read until the end. If this connection does not exist there reader will become bored, and the plot holes or character flaws that they would have forgiven for the sake of the story become obvious. Under intense scrutiny the story itself may fall apart as it did with Alex McAulay’s Lost Summer.
Caitlin Ross’s life is falling apart: her parents are divorced (with her mother gaining custody and her father gaining a new life with his sweet, young thing on the other side of the country), her brother is training to be the next rampaging school boy and her mother is addicted to pills. As if that weren’t enough, said pill-addicted mother has come up with the brilliant plan to travel to a remote island in the Outer Banks (North Carolina), ruining Caitlin’s summer schedule of hanging with her friends, singing back up in her boyfriend’s band, and doing all the shopping that her home in La Jolla, CA has to offer. To further complicate matters, it appears that Mom’s summer togetherness scheme is all about meeting up with an ex-boyfriend who seems to have transferred some of his rather creepy intentions towards Caitlin.
Lost Summer’s set up has the potential to be an intriguing story. Bill’s pedophilic interest in Caitlin and his need to reclaim his lost youth, Caitlin’s inability to get anyone to believer her, and the island’s abandoned nature could have led to an interesting face-off between the two of them in a place where Bill held all the power. McAulay doesn’t utilize this potential however, making Bill a caricature that enlightens Caitlin to his evil intentions much too soon. In turn this frightens Caitlin into running away and taking shelter with Goth girl and island rebel, Danielle, the only person who believes Caitlin’s accusations. Even at this point the plot could have been salvaged had Bill’s campaign to terrorize Caitlin had been an ongoing thread. Instead Bill disappears for a good half of the book as Caitlin flits around island, meets a boy, moves in with him, witnesses a murder and gets caught in a hurricane.
I may have been able to follow Caitlin’s adventures with interest (despite their implausibility) had I been engaged by Caitlin as a character. The entire story is told from Caitlin’s point of view, but by using a distant third person McAulay creates a disconnect between the reader and the story. Caitlin’s voice is lost as her worries and fears become filtered through this third person narrative. When her words and reactions do come across clearly they’re exacerbated by continued telling instead of showing.
Whether the story would have benefited from a first person narrative (thus cutting down on the disconnect) or simply a more sympathetic protagonist it’s unclear. Caitlin, as a character, does not grow within the confines of the story. She reacts to situations by running, and rarely by saving herself. Even in the big climax, it is her brother that does the final saving, scuttling the moment where she may have finally proven herself. This lack of growth holds true for most of the characters in the story, with any and all apparent change being superficial: Danielle, despite her uncharacteristic friendship with Caitlin, does not open up or become more accepting of others; Luke, despite his apparent warmth towards Danielle’s grandmother, does not seem to gain any respect towards the rest of the women in his life or a desire to live in a world not created by video games and movies; and Caitlin’s mother’s decision to give up drugs is not even explored. Given the third person narrative of the story, these all would have been possible avenues to explore as well as “heads to hop into” so to speak. Instead we end up back where we started, in Caitlin’s room in La Jolla with this reader uncaring whether or not they’ll be able to advance from this place.
The blurb on the back of Lost Summer claims it’s “Laguna Beach meets Cape Fear,” an apt description had the book lived up to its potential. Had all the threads woven together into a cohesive plot helmed by a likable protagonist (or even just a really good snarky protagonist), Lost Summer would have been a welcome addition to the ranks of Young Adult literature. Instead it plays out like a series of misplaced plot pieces and clichés, crowding out the suspenseful subplot that could have driven the story and led to significant character growth for Caitlin.
If you’re interested in purchasing Lost Summer, you can find it here. If you are interested in reading more novels by Alex McAulay then you can visit his website here.