Christine Hurley Deriso – Thirty Sunsets

christinehurleyderiso-thirtysunsetsTo Forrest Shephard, getting away to the family’s beach house with her parents and her brother, Brian, is the best part of every summer. Until this year, when her mother invites Brian’s obnoxious girlfriend, Olivia, to join them. Suddenly, Forrest’s relaxing vacation becomes a mission to verify the reality of Olivia’s rumored eating disorder. But the truth behind Olivia’s finicky eating isn’t at all what Forrest expected. And over the next thirty days, Forrest’s world is turned upside down as her family’s darkest secrets begin to come to light.

When I saw Thirty Sunsets in the Flux catalogue and later on NetGalley, it sounded like it might be an interesting novel. But from the synopsis I’d expected a far different book than I got. That isn’t to say that this is a bad thing, but it was surprising. Note that this review will have spoilers as you can’t really talk meaningfully about this book without giving them. If you want to remain unspoiled for this book, best not continue on, because here be SPOILERS!  

Thirty Sunsets is told from the first person perspective of Forrest Shephard, a sixteen-year-old young woman, who has come to accept that she isn’t one of the popular crowd at school, even if her big brother is and everything looked set for her to be the same. But Forrest is a bit of a braniac and as such if not an outcast, at least on the periphery of the social sphere at school. Yet even if Forrest is our narrator and protagonist, the true focus of the book is the relationship between the various members of the Shephard family. Forrest worships her big brother Brian and as such has a major chip on her shoulder regarding his girlfriend, especially as she sees Olivia as the cause of every one of Brian’s bad decisions. There are some interesting secrets being kept from Forrest by her parents and her brother, secrets that will put everything she’s taken for granted in a new light.

Deriso spends time building up the close relationship between the Shephards. It’s there in the little things, such as the word game between Forrest and her editor dad, where he’ll fire off an obscure or difficult word and Forrest gives the definition, her pride in her brother, and the unspoken – if spiky – communication between Forrest and her mum. This close bond is emphasised by the sense of intrusion that Forrest feels when Brian’s girlfriend Olivia is invited along to their annual summer stay at their beach house, loving called Spackle Beach. Forrest is angry and feels betrayed, especially since she thought her mum shared her dislike of Olivia.

Once at Spackle Beach, Olivia drives Forrest nuts, between her picky eating and constant throwing up and her brother’s doting on her every whim. It also seems to corroborate the rumour that Olivia has bulimia. Yet despite this, slowly Olivia thaws Forrest’s icy demeanour towards her. And when Forrest flat out asks her about a possible eating disorder and Olivia reveals she’s pregnant, Forrest starts to see her in a different light. I liked the way Forrest’s attitude towards Olivia shifts from outright hostility to grudging respect to sincere friendship, even if, certainly at first, the shift seem a little fast. What I also liked is that through talking to Olivia Forrest learns that the way she feels about herself and how she thinks people regard her, isn’t necessarily how others actually see her.

Learning that her brother is going to be a father is a shock to Forrest and it’s obviously also a shock for their parents, as Brian and Olivia have only just graduated high school. Deriso shows the period of adjustment for all of them, except for Brian and Olivia who have already processed the shock and are now determined to keep their baby and do right by them. It also makes Forrest doubly determined to be like other girls and finally get a boyfriend. Fate seems to conspire with her by throwing the gorgeous Scott into her lap. Handsome, charming and glib, Scott zeroes in on her and sweeps her off her feet. He’s a player and when Forrest tells him to leave her alone, he doesn’t take no for an answer and assaults her, she barely escapes being raped. Her parents are wonderfully supportive, yet Forrest’s assault reveals their final big family secret, one that thus far had remained secret, but one that explains the strange behaviour of Forrest’s family in one fell swoop: Brian is her half-brother and he was conceived through rape.

It was at this point that the narrative lost me a little as it felt a little too much; how much can happen to one family? Then again, perhaps that is life and events in the past have indirectly influenced current events. Still, it jarred me out of the story and it was hard to be fully immersed in it afterwards. This was reinforced by the resolution to prosecuting Scott’s assault of Forrest. It disappointed me as it felt like the easy way out. Obviously it allowed for all the threads to be neatly tied off in one novel, but felt more dissatisfying than it would have been if left open.

Despite my disappointment with that ending, the epilogue more than made up for it and closed the book on a hopeful note. I felt that Deriso handled some very difficult situations with care and consideration and makes it doubly clear that rape (or attempted rape) is never the victim’s fault, but always the perpetrator’s. I think this is an important message to get across to teens – and adults, for that matter – and Thirty Sunsets certainly delivers it.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.