Be True to Me

  • By Adele Griffin
  • Algonquin Young Readers
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by Caroline Bock
  • August 22, 2017

A firecracker of a beach read for teens.

The tony Upper East Side of Manhattan sets the scene for Jean, the protagonist of Be True to Me. Her relatives are moneyed, longtime summer residents of Sunken Haven, an exclusive enclave. On the island, we meet her rival, the working-class Army brat and amateur tennis champion, Fritz.

Both girls have their eyes on the new guy in Sunken Haven, the handsome-but-down-to-earth nephew of another one of the established families, Gil Burke. Gil straddles the worlds of Jean and Fritz — he may be the nephew of close friends of Jean’s parents, he may be attending college in New York City, but his mother and stepfather run a hardware store, and he describes himself as being from the “hillbilly branch of the Burke family.”

So sets up a perfect summer romance, a summer from a more sheltered time — a time to teach Minnows to swim, to worry about club dances and lobster-night festivities and tennis opens, to see boozy parents drink up — and to sneak their gin out to the beach, or up to attic bedrooms where first times gently unfold. It’s a world without Internet and cellphones, and even decent TV reception. This is a time to desire desire.

Nothing frightens these young people — theirs is a world of sweet romance set amid beaches and Saturday-night dances that still include foxtrots.       

For those not familiar with Fire Island, this barrier island is off the south shore of Long Island. It’s accessible only by boat and is serviced by regular ferries. Cars are largely prohibited, and rough tides are a signature of its beaches.

Geography as well as family and class are destiny in this novel, and this reader, who lived for many years on Long Island, craved details that those less familiar with the area may also find wanting.

On the other hand, the novel is wonderfully layered with cultural signposts from 1976, which may or may not resonate with young people. However, any adult reader of a certain age will smile at the references to Jean reading and hiding a paperback copy of Looking for Mr. Goodbar, her parents pouring highballs from their bar cart, and a spray of Charlie perfume being the ultimate allure.  

This story, worthy of being tucked into young readers’ beach bags, explodes over Fourth of July weekend, when the lives of Jean, Gil, and Fritz are changed forever, as seminal summers change us all, especially when we’re young and in love for the first time.

Caroline Bock is the author of the critically acclaimed young-adult novels LIE and Before My Eyes from St. Martin’s Press. 

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