Sunday, January 8, 2012

Book Review: Deborah Blumenthal's "The Lifeguard"

When sixteen-year-old Sirena discovers her parents are getting divorced and she is being shipped to Rhode Island to live with her Aunt Ellie for the summer, Sirena assumes she'll lie low and feel sorry for herself. But then Sirena finds her way to the beach and walks into the lives of Antonio, an eighty-year-old Brazilian painter, and Pilot, the bizarre lifeguard. Coupled with the ghosts she encounters in her aunt's attic, Sirena's summer turns into anything but ordinary.

Structure: 3.5 out of 5 stars

The author sets up what would be an incredibly stereotypical story: teenage girl falls in love with cute boy at the beach. In combination with the book's cover, the reader might expect just another romance. But Blumenthal throws in a couple of strangely satisfying twists. A robbery, a storm, an old wives tale, and a mysterious past, just to name a few. The plot shifts and thickens with each chapter.

As a reader, though, I felt unprepared for a couple of Sirena's discoveries. The author needs a touch more foreshadowing in earlier chapters. With more build-up, a few crucial moments would feel surprising instead of unsettling. I was also a bit confused at times about what was reality and what was a dream. While this could certainly be the author's choice, I didn't feel it worked well throughout the book. Overall, though, the book flows at a nice pace.

Character: 4 out of 5 stars

Readers embrace Sirena as a protagonist. She experiences pain from the divorce, confusion from Pilot, determination from her painting, and much more. Sirena is honest, kind, and passionate. At times she jumps emotions, however. A word or gesture from someone else will often change Sirena's entire perception, and I didn't always follow her feelings. But she is a strong, spunky girl who doesn't take no for an answer.

Similarly, Aunt Ellie is fierce and fascinating. I would love to know more about her background, childhood, and beliefs. Same goes for Sirena's best friend, Marissa, whom the reader meets through sporadic written correspondences between the two girls. A great cast of characters. If many are fleshed out further, the book can fully transform.

Voice: 4 out of 5 stars

The reader gets roughly 85% Sirena's voice and 15% Marissa's voice. Both girls face challenging summers and inform each other of such. While both characters come to realize new traits about their respective careers and relationships, the reader yearns for more than just surface emotions. What questions does each girl face? What inner turmoil does each one battle? The reader also learns about Pilot solely from Sirena's thoughts about him, but not much from his actual dialogue or voice. The relationship between the two would carry much more weight and tension if the reader engages with Pilot directly. All three - Sirena, Marissa, and Pilot - embody distinct character voices and intrigue the reader. A bit more from each would help the reader understand each personality better.

Blumenthal has published many novels for children and adults, and The Lifeguard is her second YA book. It will be published in March 2012 by Albert Whitman & Company.

For more on Blumenthal's work, check out her website.

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