Review: The Summer My Life Began

The Summer My Life Began by Shannon Greenland. Speak (Penguin USA). 2012. Reviewed from e-ARC via NetGalley.

The Plot: Elizabeth Margaret’s life has been planned to the smallest detail. Do well in school, go to an Ivy League college, got to law school, marry well, get a good job. She’s done all that has been expected of her. Valedictorian. Summer internship at a law firm. Harvard in the fall. So what if her only close friend is her younger sister, Gwyneth? Or that she hides cookbooks like they’re drug paraphernalia and has to sneak into the kitchen to cook? Her life is planned and Elizabeth Margaret complies, doing what pleases her parents and grandmother.

Until now. A mysterious letter arrives from Aunt Tilly, a relative she didn’t even know existed, inviting her to spend the summer at her bed & breakfast in the Outer Banks, North Carolina.

For the first time, Elizabeth Margaret does what is neither planned nor expected: she tells her family “no” and herself “yes.” She goes into the unknown, to meet this stranger, and — as the title says — her life begins.

The Good: Yes, I’m sure that part of my enjoyment of this book came from the fact that I read it while on the way to my spring vacation in North Carolina. Not the Outer Banks; further south; but still. There’s nothing like reading a book in a familiar setting. Bonus points in this was a terrific vacation read: a little romance, a little family mystery, a little food, all rolled into one.

Once in North Carolina, Elizabeth Margaret is freed from the expectations of her parents and grandmother. The visit is only for a month, bu in that month, she starts being called “Em” (a nickname from her younger sister), is allowed to indulge in her passion for food and cooking (and is even applauded for it), and even begins wearing the clothes she wants rather than the clothes her mother buys for her.

That may be Em in a nutshell: she’s a good girl who stays a good girl. Whose rebellion is not dressing like a New England preppie.

Em also resolves to try to end the family feud between her aunt, parents, and grandmother that resulted in Em having family she never knew existed. (Given the type of reader I am, and the type of notes I take when I read, I figured out the origins of the feud a few steps ahead of Em.)

Em’s parents and grandmother were a little over the top for my tastes. Em hides her cooking from her mother because when she was discovered as a child in the kitchen with the family housekeeper, her mother said “I don’t pay Navia for you to do her work. You are not in this world to cook. You will be cooked for. Do you hear me, young lady?” Do people like this even exist? And why would anyone care about such cold people? So, what did I do? I pictured Em’s family as a cross between the Gilmores from the Gilmore Girls and the Graysons from Revenge.

That aside, even if her parents are a bit over the top, the desire of a teen to please her parents is not. It’s very real. Em is like many teens: she wants to make her parents happy, she doesn’t want to disappoint them, but what she wants for herself is not what they want for her. “I liked pleasing my parents and tried to be the daughter I knew they expected me to be. I liked succeeding, having them proud of me.” Em has to figure out a way to her own happiness, and that is never as easy as it sounds. Rebellion isn’t always sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Rebellion is the wrong word entirely, because Em, and teens like her, are only trying to follow their own path. What has kept Em from doing anything up to this point other than hiding cookbooks is not a fear of her parents, but a fear of disappointing her parents. Em has to get away from her parents, get away from the risk of disappointing them, to be free to find out what makes herself happy.

Because Em had shown herself to be a people pleaser, I was worried that her freedom of choice on vacation would shift to pleasing her aunt and new friends rather than her parents. I’m happy to say that did not happen, in part because her new friends did not put the same expectations on her that her family did. Her dilemma becomes, is it possible to have her parents be proud of her for her choices, rather than following their path?

A few more important things: Em was so into school and doing well and studying she had no time for friends or boyfriends. Summer at the beach — and she manages not one but two summer romances. There is Jeremy, like the boys back home (in other words, her parents would be pleased) and Cade, the b&b handyman who is cute and hot but unreliable. The romance is sweet and innocent; while Em has just graduated high school, this could easily be handed to younger readers. Remember, Em’s act of independence is not wearing Polo shirts and helping in her aunt’s kitchen to serve food.

And last but not least: the food. Oh, the food. My favorite parts were the food. Em knows food; Em likes food; Em can cook. She isn’t presented as super-chef; yes, she knows things, but she also realizes she has much to learn about food and cooking and the interplay of tastes. I want Em’s recipes. As a matter of fact, after reading about her Jasmine rice with dried fruit, I was out at dinner at Social Wine Bar in Charleston and saw Jasmine rice balls on the menu and had to order them. Yes, they were good. I still want to figure out Em’s recipe, though: dried cranberries, fig, pear, sunflower seeds, curry…..

Other reviews: I Read Banned Books; Sim Sational Books; A Book & A Latte (and author guest post).


5 thoughts on “Review: The Summer My Life Began

  1. It was a grace to read this review because one hour ago I finished reading James’ Portrait of a Lady for my book club ; last week I read The Marriage Plot for my own pleasure. How this topic endures… What a great plot … an older benefactor who appears with an offer of ” freedom ” and self-expression. I will look forward to locating and reading this book . Thanks for suggesting it !


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