A messy love triangle. Angsty teens on summer vacation. A seemingly outdated debutante ball. The greatest soundtrack ever. That’s what you can expect from Amazon Prime Video’s newest teen drama, “The Summer I Turned Pretty.” Based on Jenny Han’s young adult novel of the same name, the show follows Isabel “Belly” Conklin (Lola Tung, debut) during the summer she turns 16 at Cousins Beach, where she and her family have spent every summer at their family friend’s beach house. Along with her mother, Laurel (Jackie Chung, “Station 19”), and brother, Steven (Sean Kaufman, “Manifest”), Belly reunites with Laurel’s best friend, Susannah Fisher (Rachel Blanchard, “You Me Her”), and her two teenage sons, Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno, “Walker”) and Conrad (Christopher Briney, debut).
For Belly, this summer is different. Gone are her glasses and braces, so boys are finally noticing her. To quote Susannah, Belly is “in bloom.” This is the summer she turns pretty — a way to describe not only her physical changes, but the inner changes she recognizes in herself as she matures and develops new relationships.
“The Summer I Turned Pretty” is first and foremost an award-winning book series, but now that the first season of the TV show is finally out, it’s taking over the world — Amazon renewed it for a second season before the first had even premiered, and the Fisher brothers are TikTok’s new favorite boyfriends. Whether you’re watching because you’re a fan of the books or because you love a good love triangle, this show will make you feel it all. Two writers, who binged the show a little too quickly, shared their overall thoughts on the show: how it compares to the book, the impact of Taylor Swift and why the friendships matter just as much as the romances.
“The Summer I Turned Pretty” is the quintessential teen drama show
With a stellar cast who excellently brings the characters to life, it’s impossible not to be completely absorbed with Han’s storytelling in “The Summer I Turned Pretty.”
The show, like the book, emphasizes that this summer is different, but not just for Belly. Her forever-crush Conrad seems to be in a perpetual bad mood, and just like all of the misunderstood and “bad” boys that have come before him, he starts smoking, drinking and pushing away those he is closest to. Conrad is the first of the kids to discover Susannah’s secret: her cancer is back. Unlike in the book where everyone knows of her cancer, Laurel is the only other person who knows in the show because Susannah wants to have one last perfect summer. Conrad’s inner turmoil affects his relationships with the other characters, like with his love-interest, Nicole (Summer Madison, “The Wonder Years”), and his father, Adam (Tom Everett Scott, “Council of Dads”). Most of all, his weird behavior hurts his relationship with Belly, in spite of his romantic feelings for her. Tensions rise when Belly’s best friend from home, Taylor (Rain Spencer, “The Super Man”), comes to visit and a new boy, Cam (David Iacono, “The Flight Attendant”), starts to take interest in Belly.
If Tung’s voice-over didn’t give it away, the show is about Belly and her coming-of-age story. She’s 15 going on 16; she’s immature, selfish and reckless at times. Throughout the series, she experiences first love and heartbreak with the guidance of Susannah and Laurel. It’s always bittersweet to watch a show that you aren’t really the target audience for anymore. As someone who read Han’s trilogy in high school, watching the show made me nostalgic for a time I know I can never get back. When you’re 16 or 17, everything in life seems momentous — part of the gravity that comes with being young. Although I can’t directly relate to Belly or the other teenage characters right now, the show flawlessly captures what it feels like to be 16 and face the challenges of growing up and finding out who you are. Simultaneously, watching Laurel and Susannah try to figure out their lives as divorced and almost-divorced middle-aged women was comforting as well. Just like the teenagers, they aren’t perfect and don’t have everything figured out.
You may recognize Han from her beloved book and film trilogy “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” While the Netflix Originals were loyal to the books they were based on, that wasn’t exactly true for the first season of Han’s newest show. I’d like to think that in a TV show, there’s more creative freedom; you can develop the characters more and give attention to plotlines that might have gone unnoticed in a 105-minute film. “The Summer I Turned Pretty” manages to capture the essence of its original source but also create an entirely new and genuine story by deviating from the book.
The changes were refreshing and, dare I say, needed. Considering the book was released in 2009, the show was certainly modernized without gimmicks or caricatures of how adults think teenagers in 2022 speak and act (with the exception of maybe Taylor). In the book, if a chapter didn’t revolve around the characters at the beach house in any way, it was dedicated to flashbacks to a previous summer. While there are still flashbacks, the show predominantly remains in the present. There are smaller additions like the annual Cousins Beach volleyball tournament, the new character of Cleveland (Alfredo Narciso, “Manifest”) who becomes a mentor for Conrad and a love interest for Laurel, and the fact that Jeremiah is bisexual. Characters like Laurel, Susannah and Nicole have a significant amount of screen time that allows them to grow and have conflict with other characters.
At other times, key elements in the book are completely altered in the show. Steven is absent for half of the book because he’s off with his father on college tours, but in the show, he is just as present as the other characters, and he is often used as comic relief. That’s not to say his character isn’t taken seriously — he gets a job at the country club, and he even develops feelings for a newly introduced character named Shayla (Minnie Mills, debut). Belly and Jeremiah don’t act upon their feelings toward each other until later in the trilogy, but in the show, the two begin to form a relationship. In an interview with TV Insider, Han revealed that the love triangle between Belly, Jeremiah and Conrad was moved up in the show simply “to know what story (they were) telling.” The trilogy’s strongest component is the brother-based love triangle, so it’s unsurprising that the first season would include it.
But the most prominent change in the show is the addition of the debutante ball. Susannah insists that Belly participate, claiming she needs to see Belly in a white dress — a heartbreaking declaration in its own right considering the eventual progression of her cancer, as described in the books. The dilemma Belly faces throughout the show — besides her ever-growing and confusing feelings toward the Fisher brothers — is who will escort her to the debutante ball. Will it be Conrad, the boy she’s loved for years; Jeremiah, her best friend; or Cam, the sweet boy she meets at the bonfire party? Not only is Belly forced to choose between the boys, but so it seems the audience is too. TikTok specifically has taken to asking the end-all question: are you Team Conrad or Team Jeremiah?
If you’re a fan of “Dawson’s Creek,” “One Tree Hill” or “The OC” and are looking for a feel-good (and at times emotional) summer show to binge-watch, look no further. The seven-episode season explores themes of family, friendship and love — quintessential aspects for any teen drama. As a huge fan of Han’s trilogy, “The Summer I Turned Pretty” more than exceeded my expectations, but I think anyone — with or without reading the books — would enjoy this show.
Daily Arts Writer Ava Seaman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Summer I Turned Pretty” is about more than just love triangles
Ever since the first season of “The Summer I Turned Pretty” was released, my “For You” page has been full of fan edits of the characters, people openly crushing on the cast and even Han herself feeding us with behind-the-scenes content. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the internet is completely divided over which of the Fisher brothers Belly should end up with. Ranging from funny to serious, it seems each person has picked a side and refuses to accept anything else. And who can blame us? It’s hard not to get sucked in by the “will they/won’t they” romance between Belly and both of the boys when it’s set against a gorgeous beach house and Taylor Swift is playing in the background. Though that might be the easiest way to pitch the show to someone who isn’t familiar with the series, there are so many other contributing elements that made this adaptation such a strong success.
One major aspect of the show that deserves more attention is the music. With artists like Olivia Rodrigo, Bleachers, Dua Lipa and more, the first season’s soundtrack is getting all kinds of positive feedback. Music even played a role in the actors’ journey to understanding their roles. As promotional material, Prime Video released Spotify playlists that the four main actors — Tung, Briney, Kaufman and Casalegno — created to help them get into the minds of their characters. Not only are the songs featured on the show popular, but they also perfectly fit the vibe of whichever scene they’re in. In the final episode, Conrad comes to Belly’s rescue at the debutante ball as Swift’s “The Way I Loved You (Taylor’s Version)” begins to play, a song that perfectly encapsulates how difficult Belly finds it to get over Conrad. Han has been vocal about how Swift’s music in particular has influenced her writing, so it only makes sense that several of her songs are featured on the show (and some fans have even noticed that those songs only play in scenes featuring Belly and Conrad — perhaps something to pay attention to in later seasons). In the scene following this one, however, viewers went through emotional whiplash while the characters cried over Susannah’s cancer relapse set to Phoebe Bridgers’s “Funeral.” While it may have hurt to hear in the moment, there’s no denying that the people in charge of the show’s music knew exactly what they were doing.
As much as I love the love triangle, the show gives us other kinds of relationships that are just as well-developed and entertaining. Laurel and Susannah’s friendship is a huge part of the book series — after all, they’re the whole reason that these beach house vacations happen. Chung and Blanchard act as if they truly have known each other for years; their dynamic is just like how I imagined these characters when I read the books. Laurel says it best: “Boys may come and go, but a friendship lasts a lifetime.” It’s also comforting to then see how each of these women act as “parents” to each other’s kids, as well as their own. Susannah thinks of Belly as her own daughter, and Laurel has no problems with keeping “Beck’s boys” in check when they do something stupid, like underage drinking. What’s most refreshing is that the women’s relationship is far from perfect. They have their ups and downs over the course of the series, arguing over their different perspectives of Susannah’s illness, but they still manage to work through their arguments and remain a united front.
Lastly, the series is first and foremost about the kids. It’s here that we really get to see different relationships play out, whether they be romantic or platonic. Steven’s relationship with Shayla may have a rocky start, but they turn out to be one of the healthier couples on the show. Belly has more female friends thanks to the debutante ball storyline, as opposed to just Taylor in the books, which in my opinion makes her a more dimensional character. Belly and Steven’s sibling dynamic is maybe too realistic (I’ve had the same argument with my own brother about leaving hair in the shower), but Steven is on Belly’s side when things get serious. And of course, at the heart of it all is the bond between Belly, Steven, Conrad and Jeremiah. Even though these characters may have different relationships when one on one, the four of them are a unit. Whether they’re running up and down the beach, making pomegranate margaritas or orchestrating a “Belly Flop,” you can’t help but love them.
All of this isn’t to say that the Belly/Conrad/Jeremiah triangle doesn’t deserve all the attention it’s getting. Believe me, I screamed at my TV more times than I can count whenever anything remotely romantic happened on screen, especially when a Taylor Swift song was playing, and I’ve had too much fun reading through people’s arguments on social media defending which “team” they’ve chosen. But this series, both on the page and on the screen, is about so much more than a love triangle. It’s about family, both by blood and by choice; it’s about loss and grief; it’s about coming of age and all the changes that come with growing up. As far as adaptations go, this one is the best I’ve seen so far, and I can’t wait to watch more of these moments unfold and listen to more great music whenever Season 2 comes out.
Daily Arts Writer Hannah Carapellotti can be reached at email@example.com.