Stephanie's Reviews > Second Chance Summer

Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson
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's review
May 31, 12

bookshelves: young-adult
Read in May, 2012

3.5 stars

This review originally appeared at

If I were asked what the most haunting phrase in the English English is, “stage four pancreatic cancer” would have to be somewhere towards the top. It is, after all, a phrase that’s virtually synonymous with death. There’s something so terrifying about this disease, more than so many others: it’s an invisible disease that devours from the inside out. It’s a disease that people don’t know how to deal with, one that seems to make no sense–why would one’s body turn on itself? It’s a disease that flouts all of our typical grieving processes, our goodbyes. It’s the awkward silence that descends on a room and makes everyone who they are.

It’s also something that follows you no matter how far you run, and for the first time in her life Taylor Edwards, who has made a habit of running, is being forced to stand her ground and follow something through to its conclusion. When Taylor’s dad is diagnosed with terminal cancer, her family decides to spend the summer–a last summer–at their old lake house in Pennsylvania. But it’s a decision that means not only that Taylor has to face the inevitable death of her father, but a past that she’s been outrunning for years.

The Edwards’ summer home is a strange mix of the new and the old: some things, like the decor, have remained utterly unchanged in the past five years, while others, like their neighbours, have changed completely. The neighbourhood is mix of the familiar and the strange, much like the situation with Taylor’s father. A successful lawyer, he’s always been strong and successful in Taylor’s eyes: until now, she has seen him as a rock-like figure in her life, never changing, but always just there. It’s not that Taylor doesn’t love her father, it’s just that there have always been priorities she’s put ahead of getting to know him. After all, if you see someone as unchanging, then your future with them seems infinite.

But now Taylor can see the changes: from day to day there are differences in his conduct, his manner, his aspect. And although he’s wasting away, ageing at some sort of supernatural rate, he wants this summer to be one where he can experience as much of his children, his wife, and the rest of his life, as possible. The family has perhaps three months together until everything changes forever. But Taylor’s torn between wanting to spend as much time with her father as possible and his need to be able to get his affairs in order. And so Taylor leads what’s largely a normal teen life: beginning a love affair with a childhood friend; rekindling a friendship with her best friend from years ago. Getting a job for the first time. Helping her brother find a date, and her sister find her first best friend. Taylor uses the summer to atone for the wrongs she feels she has committed, and also as a second chance for her and her father. Her father, on the other hand, uses it to relieve all of the things that have meant so much to him throughout his life–and to encourage his children to become the people they have always wanted to be. But time, of course, is running out.

Second Chance Summer is a beautiful novel in so many ways, and there are parts of it that are tremendously strong: the end had me very close to tears. But I was disappointed by the scope of the book: the emotional impact of Taylor’s father’s illness and her growing relationship with him, which is the key aspect of the book, was diluted by the various side plots of summer love, friendships, and summer jobs. In particular, the terrible deed that Taylor keeps so obliquely referring to, and which turns out to be very much a mountain out of a molehill, is hugely overemphasised, with a good half of the book spent focusing on this element and not on the more crucial plotline of her father’s illness, her family’s reaction to it, and Taylor’s subsequent growth as an individual because of it.

The problem with red herring of Taylor’s past shows up in other places, too: there are things that we’re led to believe should be more important than they are, which becomes quite exhausting in a book that’s as emotionally challenging as this. There are, throughout the book, scenes that feel like they should go somewhere, but don’t: for example, Taylor’s boyfriend’s reaction to an abandoned dog seems to hint at something more than what we get: the reader expects a plot-related progression rather than a simple emotional reaction.

However, this aside, there is a good deal here to like, and I adored the relationship between Taylor and her father, not to mention all of the ways in which each tried to “make right” their relationship through small but meaningful gestures–buying licorice, watching certain films, having pun wars–but with the many subplots on display here the book feels bloated to the point that much of this loses the emotional impact it should have had. It’s when, at the very end, the novel condenses back down to just the family that it’s at its best, and Matson’s considerable skills as an author show through.

Second Chance Summer is deeply moving, but I couldn’t help but feel that its lack of focus dampens its emotional impact.
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