I absolutely loved Monsoon Summer by Mitali Perkins. Monsoon Summer is the story of 15-year-old Jasmine Carol Gardner, known as Jazz. Jazz is the product of her bulky, introverted white father and her petite, activist Indian-born mother. Genetically, and by her choices, Jazz takes mostly after her father, while her younger brother, Eric, resembles their mother. Their family is very close, however, with a strong sense of mutual loyalty. Thus when Jazz's mother wins a grant to go set up a clinic for pregnant women at the orphanage in India where she lived as a child, the whole family leaves California to go along for the summer.
Jazz is quite reluctant to go to India, however, mostly because of her newly-discovered, and undisclosed, love for her best friend, Steve. Jazz and Steve run a thriving business giving Berkeley tourists postcards of themselves in front of local landmarks and nostalgic activist signs. Jazz is worried about leaving Steve to run the business by himself, and even more worried about leaving him to the mercies of other girls from school. She can't imagine actually telling Steve how she feels, because she considers him so much more attractive and popular than herself, and she is sure that he would never be interested in her in that way. Still, she hates to leave him.
Most of the story takes place in the city of Pune, India, during the monsoon season, which many believe is a magical time. Jazz is at first quite resistant to the pull of India, and to the needs of the people around her. This is mostly due to her own self-doubt (and a little bit because of her obsession with Steve). The memory of a failed experiment in helping someone else, one in which her trust was betrayed, keeps her from wanting to get involved. But gradually, the monsoons work their magic on her, and she finds her over-protected heart expanding, as she becomes more brave and confident.
I think that Jazz's self-doubt and complete inability to think of herself as beautiful will resonate with anyone who is, or ever has been, a teenager. This authenticity makes Jazz's gradual transformation an inspiration. I think that this book could help teens to see themselves in a new light.
Jazz and her father both also evolve through the book from being fairly hands-off to being people who take an active part in helping others. Without being preachy about it, Monsoon Summer makes the reader want to get more involved, too. I'm not quite sure how Mitali Perkins manages that feat. I'm personally quite resistant to books that feel like they're promoting some larger agenda. I think that it works in this case because Perkins shows us how Jazz and her father react to a specific situation, rather than simply telling us that we should act in some particular way. All I know is that I cried at the end (in a good way).
I also liked the long-distance relationship between Jazz and Steve, sweet at times, realistically snippy at others. The descriptions of India, as seen through the eyes of someone raised in America, are eye-opening, without being overwhelming. And I liked the way that the author resists the temptation to wrap up every detail, leaving at least one issue unresolved. All in all, I enjoyed this book, and I highly recommend it for teen readers. I also think that adults, especially those who are feeling a bit jaded about life, will find it a refreshing treat.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.