Sometimes, a book disappoints because it's a mess, but sometimes, it'll disappoint because there is so much potential and adorableness, and it squanders it. Melissa Brayden's Strawberry Summer does the latter. I had been so charmed in the beginning, but the pacing and some storytelling choices aggravated me enough I needed to complain to friends.
Strawberry Summer takes place over years. The heroines meet in high school and have a relationship during summers in college, but aren't finally reunited until years later. It isn't a slow burn romance, but is a second chance romance as they age from 16 to 26.
Maggie is the daughter of a strawberry farmer and a romance novelist. She exists peacefully in the smallish town of Tanner Peak, helping at the farm and trying not to be mocked by her wealthier classmates. Then, Courtney, the daughter of a department store owner, arrives. They become friends quickly and one night, when Courtney convinces Maggie to go to a party, they kiss. It's a tiny spoiler to say that Courtney's parents divorce and the girls are separated when Courtney moves east with her mother, but the story spans a decade. After her freshman year in college, Courtney returns for the summer to work at her father's store and the girls fall in love. Every summer, they are reunited, but only for the summer, much to Courtney's homophobic father's dislike. Maggie almost follows Courtney, but something happens to keep her in Tanner Peak. Then, something happens to break them up. Skip a few years and we're in present day Tanner Peak when Courtney returns to town to take care of business at the store and rekindle that first love. Because of past heartbreak, Maggie resists Courtney's attempts to reconnect until she can no longer ignore the attraction between them.
One of the things that I liked about the book was how real and honest the first love felt. There are lovely chapters where you get to enjoy the characters falling in love and figuring out what that means for them. But then, it dawdles and just treads water.
It's nice that they are in love, but there are three summers of this with things thrown in to keep them apart. Life does like to throw things at us, but one big event felt manipulative, and the subsequent event made me scream. And then, we are thrust into the present when Courtney returns. Again, I was charmed by this section until I was frustrated by the repetitiveness. Pacing is really the devil here. Brayden wrote charming characters who fall in love, but then they are static for too long or the narrative manipulates events to create conflict. I am all for good conflict unless I can see the author pulling strings to accomplish the "something terrible needs to happen now!"
Additionally, there's a fair amount of disbelief to suspend (including a large department store opening in a small town), but the biggest issue that the book asks you not to notice is how very white it is. Our heroines are white, their friends are white, the entire town seems to be white. But a farming town in California will never be all white. And considering that this takes place in Santa Barbara County, AT LEAST 40% of that town should be Latinx.
I am a fan of Brayden's work, which is why this book frustrates me so. Strawberry Summer could have been truly lovely. It even has a bunch of my catnip and my particular kryptonite (when people are truly kind to each other [Brayden feels like a master of these scenes]), but those aren't enough to make me forget when the story drags or tests my ability to forgive manipulation.
Content warnings: implied domestic abuse, imperfect handling of bisexuality, homophobia, the tiniest bit of asexual erasure, (spoilers: unplanned pregnancy for a secondary character, sibling death)