I’m having a hard time with books about grief lately. I tried reading another YA novel similar to this one in terms of dealing with a recent death, and I ended up abandoning it—not because it was bad, but because there was something about the rawness of the emotion that made it a difficult read. Maybe it’s because I haven’t yet experienced that type of grief in my life. I don’t know. But the raw grief at the beginning of Summer Bird Blue made this a challenging read. Also, I’m not a big fan of musical novels—that is, books that incorporate songs or music as a part of the plot. So Akemi Dawn Bowman set herself a tall order, impressing me despite these preferences of mine. But she did it, as the 4-star rating attests.
Rumi loses her sister (and best friend), Lea, in a car accident that she and her mom survive. Her mom is so wrapped in grief that she ships Rumi off to Hawai’i (where her mom’s originally from) for the summer. Living with an aunt she doesn’t know well, Rumi initially struggles to connect to others. Eventually she begins visiting the next door neighbour, eighty-year-old Mr. Watanabe; she also makes friends with some kids her age. But what really eludes her is music: Rumi and Lea were going to start a band together, and Rumi is at a loss how to write music without her partner in crime. She knows she needs to, but she equally knows that she can’t.
Once I got past my discomfort with the grief on display, Summer Bird Blue swept me up and carried me away on Rumi’s journey. I say this very deliberately: the prose here is gentle and very careful. I wouldn’t describe it as lyrical, but it has a quality of distance to it. Descriptions of characters, for example, are there but easy to miss if you aren’t looking. Bowman focuses instead on actions and activity. This has the effect of some characters, like Kai, jumping off the page, whereas others, like Aunty Ani, tend to be more subdued. It’s all about the degree to which Rumi deigns to interact with them.
I also liked the flashbacks embedded within the book. In particular, Bowman skilfully intersperses them at changing intervals. In the beginning, the flashbacks come fast and frequently, as if to correspond with the rawness of Rumi’s grief. As the story progresses, the flashbacks slow down—but they never quite fade away, and if anything they pick up towards the end, when Rumi is finally coming to terms with this first phase of her grief. Sometimes flashbacks can be heavyhanded or jarring in their juxtaposition, and that just never happens here.
But probably the best part of the book for me, even if it is something that others might easily overlook, is the love story—or lack thereof. Indeed, Rumi’s asexuality was why I chose to read Summer Bird Blue even though I wasn’t all that hot on a novel about grief. I think it is so important we have more novels featuring ace and/or aro characters who just are. Where their aromanticism or asexuality aren’t huge parts of the story. And that’s what we get here. These parts of Rumi’s identity are important, and Bowman treats them with respect. She uses those words (and others) on page as Rumi sorts through her confusion regarding how she feels about Kai.
Rumi basically says that she is probably asexual and maybe also aromantic, but she stops short of embracing those labels. They feel too definite for her tastes, and she is also uncomfortable with how they revolve around attraction—she expresses some sentiments that I would interpret as feeling sex-repulsed, perhaps. Rumi’s discomfort is completely understandable for someone who is 16 or 17 years old and trying to figure herself out. It’s unrealistic to expect every ace or aro person to immediately find and adopt labels that work for them, and I really appreciate Bowman validating this stance while also making it clear that asexuality, demisexuality, aromanticism, etc., are completely valid identities in and of themselves. That is to say, Bowman isn’t having Rumi hedge as a way of portraying asexuality as some kind of transitional state. Rumi’s asexuality is valid; what’s in question is how she chooses to express it to others. Yes, we need more books with characters who are unapologetically out as ace, sure. But we also need books like this, where the label matters less than the love story itself.
And that not-so-romantic romance? Loved it. Kai is a nice guy who is understanding without being unrealistic, and Bowman provides him with plenty of his own challenges and opportunities to grow. Meanwhile, Rumi explores how she feels about Kai in a way that I can only describe as courageous. And when she realizes that dating and romance and kissing are not what she wants, she makes that clear. Mad respect for her and for Kai for negotiating these complex feelings, and for the way Bowman models what mature and consenting friendships between teenagers can be.
This is why I decided to praise Summer Bird Blue. For a novel grounded in grief, it nevertheless focuses on growth and strength. Bowman won me over because she is a writer who sharpens her skills by taking the more difficult path. It would have been easy to write a story about summer love redeeming a grief-stricken girl, maybe throw in an evil ex-girlfriend as a rival, kill off the old mentor neighbour character in the third act for some pathos, etc. Summer Bird Blue revels in its complexity and nuance, yet it never drowns you in them. I am, frankly, incredibly surprised yet also very pleased to have enjoyed this book so much.