Novel: Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman | Goodreads
Release Date: September 11, 2018
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Rumi Seto spends a lot of time worrying she doesn’t have the answers to everything. What to eat, where to go, whom to love. But there is one thing she is absolutely sure of—she wants to spend the rest of her life writing music with her younger sister, Lea.
Then Lea dies in a car accident, and her mother sends her away to live with her aunt in Hawaii while she deals with her own grief. Now thousands of miles from home, Rumi struggles to navigate the loss of her sister, being abandoned by her mother, and the absence of music in her life. With the help of the “boys next door”—a teenage surfer named Kai, who smiles too much and doesn’t take anything seriously, and an eighty-year-old named George Watanabe, who succumbed to his own grief years ago—Rumi attempts to find her way back to her music, to write the song she and Lea never had the chance to finish.
Although I enjoyed the beginning of Summer Bird Blue, it roars through fifty pages of material in about ten. It’s a quick and hard beginning; I feel like it would have had more impact if it slowed down a little. On the flip side, it would have been more effective if it had started right afterwards rather than dragging us through such whiplash.
Certain aspects of Rumi’s family life are quirky but don’t feel real, like the “sandwich method,” in which she gives a compliment and then her (real) sour feedback slipped in, and then another confident. Or the word association way in which they wrote songs. Bits of the narrative, though poignant, felt too abstract. They felt too convenient, like they each needed a character quirk and they were just randomly assigned.
Rumi is unlikable and acerbic, but that’s part of her grieving process. It’s not romantic. It’s angry. I appreciated that it took a risk in that regard, but it could occasionally get old. At times, I felt like we needed a little more to hold onto — something tangible and hopeful. Also, she could just kind of be an idiot at times, having little regard for other people, which made it hard to believe in the unconditional adoration she had for her sister.
It starts with her lashing out at her mom. Although she doesn’t blame her mom for the car crash, they quickly become resentful towards each other for their grief. Rumi starts to believe that her mother loved her sister more than her, and it makes it hard to repair their relationship when their processes are so isolating. And then, when her mom ships her off to Hawaii to heal with her aunt, it’s another bridge they have to cross.
Hawaii wasn’t conveyed in some movie way, something that glamorized its palm trees and aesthetic appeal. It was conveyed in a real, homey way — the day-to-day living in which characters did not get up and go to the beach every day. Although admittedly I prefer the former (because I’m a romantic), this felt more authentic.
Rumi starts to settle in with her aunt, but still lashed out often. She immediately grated against the neighbor, choosing instead to bury herself in bedcovers and avoid the memory of her sister and music. When her family and surroundings drag her out, it’s hit-or-miss. The book focuses on her healing process, and how skittery it could be.
Certain emotions felt enormously genuine and well-written. Rumi’s relationship with her mom was complex, especially in the wake of her sister’s death, and gradually changed. It felt real, especially as they dealt with jealousy and a newfound awareness of their mortality.
I also loved her platonic, and real, friendships. There was no hidden agenda, just people looking out for other people. I also loved that one of her friends was elderly, the man next door who connected with her in her grief. They’d just listen to music together and sit in silence in his sitting room for ages, and I loved that picture.
Despite Summer Bird Blue having a good heart, it never quite won me over. Certain aspects of the plot and writing were too disruptive for my taste. A lot of people praise this one for being “lyrical” when I read a lot of it as too abstract and convenient, relying on plot devices that I outgrew a while ago.
For one, Rumi is musical but the way she described music and its role in her life never worked for me. She felt like after her sister died, she didn’t “deserve” music. It didn’t feel like there was enough tangible connection between her and music; instead, she appealed to lofty metaphors and similes that felt overdone. The melodrama about not deserving music was slightly irritating.
Structurally, I also had some issues. Bowman set off flashbacks by putting them under the heading “a memory” and connected them to very loose things happening in the present. Rumi would be looking at like, pancakes, and flash back to a childhood birthday — and dwell on it. It always felt a little disjointed, and abrupt. I feel like there would have been much smoother ways to have done it that could have made me settle into the book.
The way Akemi Dawn Bowman conveyed the Hawaiian way of speaking was difficult to get used to, and not something that ever got easier. It was inconsistent in a way that didn’t feel real (although I myself have little experience or expertise on what it’s “supposed” to be like.)
Although I can see why many would enjoy Summer Bird Blue — a less-often conveyed grieving process, an asexual main character, lots of diversity, some tender friendships — I never relaxed into the book. I never felt the tug of the plot, and rarely connected to it. I’m disappointed that it didn’t do more for me.