It’s hard not to hold your breath when a beloved book series is translated for the screen. Will they completely destroy the plot? Will the casting be terrible and not at all what you imagined? These are questions I had going into the new series The Summer I Turned Pretty (which premieres on Amazon Prime on June 17), based on Jenny Han’s beloved 2011 Young Adult book trilogy of the same name.
Chronicling Isabel “Belly” Conklin and her torrid love triangle with brothers Conrad and Jeremiah Fisher, the books capture the heady, complex nuances of teenage emotion, first loves and grief — all set against the picturesque backdrop of Cousins Beach. You can practically feel the salt air and sunscreen dripping off the pages. They’re the kind of books you stay up all night reading because each chapter is pulling you in deeper instead of lulling you to sleep — I felt this way when I read them for the first time at 15, and re-reading them now at 28 I feel it even more (my double espresso this morning can confirm).
Season one of the new TV series is based on the first book in the trilogy and captures that same magic – it’s a show that’ll have you pushing your bedtime just so you can slip farther into its sun-drenched world (which is no surprise, considering that author Jenny Han is an executive producer). While the TV series does take some liberties from the book and weaves in threads of ideas from other books in the trilogy, they all add to the richness of the story, embellishing the tapestry of Belly’s world and seamlessly bringing it into 2022 for new and old audiences alike to fall in love with. Curious to know exactly how the new series stacks up to the books? Read on to find out.
Note: there are some basic character and plot spoilers ahead.
A delightfully diverse cast
After decades of YA books, movies and series being whitewashed, this series feels like a breath of fresh air. Belly (played by Lola Tung) and her brother Stephen (played by Sean Kaufman) are half Korean, and the simple act of seeing them together with their parents is a powerful statement, because so often biracial families are misrepresented or excluded from the narrative entirely (truthfully, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a family on-screen that actually looks like my own). Their Koreanness is an undeniable part of them, but it’s not a major plot point: they get to simply exist, a luxury that many POC characters don’t always have. Author Jenny Han has frequently spoken out about the adversity she’s faced trying to champion an Asian lead in her books and film and television projects, and this victory feels especially significant given that Belly and her family are presumably white in the books (No mention is ever made of their race other than Belly having brown hair, freckles and grayish blue eyes, but the original book covers show a white protagonist).
Beyond Belly’s family, we see supporting characters like Nicole (Conrad’s love interest), Shayla (Stephen’s love interest) and Cam (Belly’s third love interest… are you keeping up?) all played by POC actors, and each of them are celebrated as beautiful, desirable and relatable. Oh, how far we’ve come since Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles.
Charming, flirtatious, golden Jeremiah is bisexual in the new series, and we love to see it. This change suits his character so perfectly, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t in the original. What’s more, he openly talks about his sexuality and kisses a boy on-screen, and this is met with total acceptance and appreciation. In no way does it take away from his potential appeal as Belly’s love interest, and it’s handled both deftly and casually in a way that feels so 2022. Belly’s mother’s love interest Cleveland (played by Alfredo Narciso) is also acknowledged as bisexual, a refreshingly minor detail to his character. And, one of Belly’s debutante ball friends is openly gay and brings her girlfriend to the deb ball (in a suit, no less!).
The grown-ups are messy in the best way
Similar to the truly iconic teen dramedies that have come before it (The OC, Sex Education), this series doesn’t relegate the parents to boring authority figures – instead, they’re messy, complicated and could carry the series on their own. We see hints of this in the books, but the TV series takes it to new heights, giving us a deeper look at the friendship between Laurel (Belly’s mother, played by Jackie Chung) and Susannah AKA Beck (Conrad and Jeremiah’s mother, played by Rachel Blanchard, who you might recognize from the TV adaptation of Clueless). Beyond their friendship, we also see Laurel and Beck openly explore their sexuality as divorcees in their 40s, and examine their complicated relationships with their ex-husbands — all while mothering rambunctious teens.
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There’s a big fat debutante ball
Much of the new series hinges on Belly attending a debutante ball at the Cousins Country Club, a plot point that actually doesn’t exist in the books. It’s a clever addition that highlights Belly’s transition from awkward preteen to stunning young woman in the eyes of both herself and the Fisher boys, makes room for a shopping montage (a necessity in any truly great teen movie or series) and expands the world of Cousins Beach to a new cast of characters. The debutante ball and country club also crack open a wider conversation around privilege and wealth, a particularly poignant storyline that shows there’s a lot more to Cousins Beach than we see on the surface.
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The soundtrack is full of bops
I might have saved the best for last: this soundtrack is positively loaded with Taylor Swift. Apart from Taylor’s own documentaries, I’d hedge a bet that this series has the most Taylor Swift songs on any soundtrack ever. Our favourite singer songwriter (and doctor, ahem), is the official songstress of Belly and Conrad’s relationship, with one of her iconic songs cueing up for every significant moment they share.
Specifically (warning: bigger spoilers ahead) – “Lover” plays when Belly sees Conrad at the beach for the first time that summer, “False God” plays when they almost kiss on the dock, “The Way I Loved You (Taylor’s Version)” plays during their dance at the debutante ball and “This Love (Taylor’s Version)” plays during their long-awaited beachy kiss at the end of the season. Bonus: “Cruel Summer” also plays in the background while Belly chats to her BFF about Conrad before heading to the beach for the summer.
It feels especially fitting, considering that both Jenny Han and Taylor Swift have the unique ability to tell stories about young women that feel so deeply relatable, they often feel ripped from the pages of your own diary (just me?). Fans of the series have been petitioning Jenny Han (a self-proclaimed Swiftie) to include Taylor in the series since it was announced, and she really delivered. Beyond Miss Swift, it’s a star-studded soundtrack featuring Olivia Rodrigo, Cardi B, Phoebe Bridgers and more of our favourite female artists du jour. In short, I have a feeling we’ll all be listening to this playlist and replaying each glorious scene in our minds all summer long.
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