© 2024 WEMU
Serving Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, MI
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Mathematics Of Magic And Loss In 'Square Root Of Summer'

How do we remember our experiences when grief has consumed them? It seems like a heavy question for a book called The Square Root of Summer to tackle, and while this book does deliver on the title's promise of teenage vacation hijinks, romance, and mathematical equations, it also presents a heartrending quandary: How to move forward with a life that has been defined by loss.

Gottie is a teenaged math whiz who knows a little too much about subtraction. Her mother died when she was still a baby. Her best friend Thomas swore a blood oath to always be there for her, then disappeared to Canada and never wrote. And a summer ago, she lost her grandfather Grey, the one person who gave some order to the chaos of her family. Her secret boyfriend wouldn't even hold her hand at the funeral, her father is so lost in his own grief that he's barely there, and her brother wants to party like there's nothing wrong. The only way she can cope with it all is to disappear slowly, stripping away all the people and things that once defined her in a desperate bid to escape her grief.

But it isn't so easy to forget when the fabric of time starts to rip open. Mysterious wormholes appear, sending Gottie into the most challenging moments of her past and daring her to confront all the things she's been working so hard to avoid.

The thing I like best about this book is Gottie's lovingly rendered family. They are an eccentric bunch, but their quirks never feel like a substitute for actual character. Gottie's father is deeply believable as a man who has been defined by the oddity of his loved ones and has retreated into himself to cope with their loss. Her brother has turned the turmoil of their upbringing into a burgeoning rock star persona, working hard at being cool instead of damaged. Grey was the one thing holding them all together, so it's easy to understand how his death has fractured Gottie's world.

'Summer' ... shows how hard it can be to maintain friendships through loss, and how tempting it can be to withdraw from people instead of revealing too much pain.

Summer also shows how hard it can be to maintain friendships through loss, and how tempting it can be to withdraw from people instead of revealing too much pain. Gottie has pulled away from her good friend Sof, and the fits and starts they experience while trying to reclaim their relationship are some of the most touching parts of the book for me. Gottie's friendship with Thomas also starts out compromised; they have to rebuild it before it can become anything more. Just like real life, these friendships are not simple, and both parties make mistakes.

The bonds of friendship and family rely on memories of shared experiences, and the one place where this book stumbled for me was in its approach to remembering. I am generally a fan of time travel as a plot device, but the time jumps in this story left me unsatisfied. While I really appreciate the idea of having a female protagonist who tries to solve her problems using science, Gottie's time jump theories feel like a departure from the story. The choice to remember the things that pain us is part of what allows us to move on; remembering is forced upon Gottie, and while she does eventually give in to it, I wanted to see her make the choice for herself.

Despite my quibbles with the time jumps, this is an enjoyable read that has a lot to offer in terms of likable characters and believable relationships. It presents an earnest picture of the way loss ripples through a family and shapes the movements of everyone it touches.

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is an editor at Goblin Fruit, and can be found discussing folklore and pop culture on the Fakelore Podcast.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.