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The Square Root of Summer
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know The Square Root of Summer is a coming-of-age novel about a smart, science-minded teen girl, Gottie, who's consumed with grief. Shortly after her grandfather dies and her secret boyfriend bails on her, she begins to notice odd shifts in time and space around her. A big part of the book is an "is it or isn't it real?" question around these weird happenings. Because Gottie's so into science, there are a lot of physics equations and discussions of quantum physics. Much of the book also deals with love and sexual longing. Even though sex isn't graphically depicted, Gottie often replays memories of her time with her former boyfriend, including sex and making out. Swearing is infrequent and is usually exclamations, including, "s--t," "f--k," and "balls." Older teen characters and adults drink, but the book is set in England, where the legal drinking age is younger. One character drinks to deal with his sadness.
What's the story?
Margot Oppenheimer, or "Gottie," as she is known to those closest to her, feels surrounded and consumed by loss. Her mother died shortly after giving birth to her, her best friend suddenly moved away five years ago, her loving and hilarious hippie grandfather died last year, and her secret love took off shortly after her grandfather's death. As Gottie withdraws into herself, unable to deal with these problems, she starts to notice what she thinks are openings to black holes and wormholes, shifts in space and time. She occasionally finds herself back in time, reliving past experiences, returning hours later and someplace else. She's a science whiz who tries to figure out what's happening by using quantum physics theories, but it could all be a mental reaction to her grief. Her old friend and her boyfriend both return for the summer, stirring up lots of confusion and emotions in Gottie, which increases the number of odd time and space shifts around her. She realizes that by retreating into herself, she has lost important connections with family and friends. She needs to figure out how to go on living in the present and move forward when things go wrong.
Is it any good?
In this charming story, Gottie's life is consumed with grief, lost love, and quantum physics. Is she really seeing shifts in time and space, or is her grief-stricken mind playing tricks on her? With important losses piling up in her life, Gottie goes practically mute and retreats into herself. When she starts seeing static or blackness where the real world should be, Gottie steps into the abyss and relives past experiences. She delves deeply into quantum physics to explain these phenomena and lost time. The metaphor of grief as a black hole is a good one, as is the question of how much a person should revisit past events. These plot devices make the reader question whether what Gottie is experiencing is real, which is interesting but ultimately ends up a confused jumble at the end of the book.
Yet author Harriet Reuter Hapgood's writing is striking at times. She captures the way teens can be extremely sensitive and caring but also completely self-absorbed. Gottie's struggles with love and hurt are well conveyed. Her pain over being dumped and her confusion over whether her feelings for a childhood friend are reciprocated are beautifully rendered. Teens with an interest in romance will like this aspect of the book the most. The problem with Gottie as a main character and narrator is that she's so inside her own head, repeatedly going over the same events, that the story doesn't move forward enough. The reader gets stuck along with Gottie, which can be frustrating. This is an ambitious book, tackling grief, romance, family, friendships, and complex science, but it tries to cover too much in 304 pages.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about books and movies that use science (real or fake) as part of the plot. Do you think this makes them more interesting? Does it ever make the book or movie more confusing?
How do you feel about stories that leave the reader or viewer unsure of what's real or what's fantasy? Do you like the "is it or isn't it?" approach, or do you prefer stories to be more cut and dried?
In The Square Root of Summer, Gottie's strength is physics, and she dives deeper into it the sadder and more confused she gets. Do you have any school subjects or hobbies that you can disappear into? What do they offer to you that helps you?
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