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Book Review: The Summer of Naked Swim Parties

Recovered Judy Blume addicts, brace yourselves for a relapse: Jessica Anya Blau’s debut novel, set in Santa Barbara, California, during the summer of ’76, is a poignant, gleeful ode to the turbulence of growing up—and a delicious thrill if you crave return visits to adolescence.

Jamie is 14 years old and a worrywart. Her parents, Betty and Allen, are carefree hippies with a penchant for excessive nudity, pot and leaving Jamie alone in the house, to her great chagrin. Until now, Jamie’s world has been filled with little more than her irritable older sister, a braces-clad cohort and irrational adolescent fears: What if her friends see Betty topless? What if the police come while her parents are passing a joint? But her bicentennial summer gets blown open by the sea-eyed surfer boys who start noticing her, the pressures and pleasures of sex and a tragedy that brings a 180-degree change to Jamie’s formerly easygoing, sun-kissed existence.

Blau’s writing is frank, witty and occasionally hilarious; her account of Jamie’s experiences will evoke vivid recollections of first loves and teenage angst. The Summer of Naked Swim Parties has plenty of good period detail (one group-therapy session includes a hippie couple and their son, Tugboat), but it’s not a nostalgia piece. It’s a dead-on portrayal of the simple yet shocking revelations of youth: Friendship can be tenuous, sex is not contractual, and the importance of family trumps everything.