The Square Root of Summer, Harriet Reuter Hapgood

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Summer break should be a time of lazy mornings, afternoons spent outdoors, and long twilights where anything feels possible. For Gottie, the main character of The Square Root of Summer, summer break has become something to dread. After her beloved grandfather's death the year before, Gottie descended into a grief so deep she has yet to discover the bottom. As if that weren't enough, her brother's return from school has also brought the return of his friend Jason, Gottie's first love and first heartbreak. It also brings the return of her childhood best friend Thomas, who emigrated to Canada years ago, and never once in the years he's been away wrote or called.

With so much going on in Gottie's world, when she starts losing time she wonders if she might not be going mad. Each time it happens, she has a vivid flashback to a memory from the summer before. Soon she realizes they are more than just flashbacks-she is actually there, in the past, able to manipulate things and talk to people. Gottie, a scientific genius, develops a theory; she believes she is traveling through wormholes in space-time. In other words, time-travel. But why? What is causing this time displacement? And why does she keep going back to revisit memories she's been trying to avoid?

This book takes a novel approach to both the idea of time travel, and to the exploration of loss and grief. It's not often that I've seen quantum physics used as a major plot device in YA literature. But in the context of the story, it works. Which of us, when faced with painful memories, doesn't shy away? Gottie spends and entire year trying to avoid anything that reminds her of either her first heartbreak or her father's death. This means pushing away everyone-family, best friend, teachers at school. But Hapgood's message-that we must confront painful memories if we hope to learn from them or move past them-is perfectly delivered through the events Gottie relives as she is sucked back in time.

The characters are quirky and charming. Though Gottie's mother died when she was born, her father  a German ex-pat, chose to stay in England to raise his children. He was benignly neglectful of Gottie and her brother Ned even when their grandfather was alive, but he withdrew from the world even more after he died. Throughout the long winter, Gottie longed for him to be more present, but he was dealing with his grief in his own way. Ned, Gottie's brother, is a first year uni student who wants to be a rock star. His exuberance and love for life covers his own grief, which he hides from Gottie, feeling he has to take care of her. And even though Gray, Gottie's grandfather, is not physically present, he looms large over Gottie's entire journey that summer, as she finally faces her most painful memories of him. He was larger than life, the kind and eccentric patriarch of their little family. He was the opposite of Gottie's introspective father, and as such he became the central figure in Gottie's childhood. His loss destabilized her whole world-the whole universe, apparently, if the fabric of space-time was rent as a result.

The love story here is pretty predictable, which didn't make it less enjoyable to read. The depth of Gottie's relationship to Thomas, and the struggles they have to go through to repair their friendship before they can be together at all add a tension that improves on the basic plot device of "best-friend-becomes-boyfriend".  Gottie also has to repair her friendship with her bestie Sof, whom she pushed away after Gray's death, not wanting to drag her into her well of grief. What she failed to realize was that Sof was grieving as well, and they could have supported each other, and Gottie not turned inward so drastically. There are some good themes about the meaning of friendship, and about how healthy relationships require commitment and work to keep them going. There was also a good anti-example in Gottie's relationship with Jason, her "first love". Gottie comes to realize that what they had was never what she thought it was.

This is Hapgood's debut novel, and for a first novel it is very good. I'd definitely recommend it for inclusion in a classroom library, or as a book club read for high schoolers. I don't know that it has universal appeal, but I can see many teens connecting with one or the other characters, and with the themes of friendship, loss, and love.

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