“In some ways, it doesn’t matter what happened next, or in the year and a half since then. That night was perfect and I’ll always have it. I’ll hold on to the memory tight as I want, because it’s mine.”
Sadie Bell knows exactly what she wants to happen during the summer before her senior year of high school. She is going to befriend the popular girls at her school after bonding during their summer photography class. She is going to see her father for the first time in years and it will be better this time because they’ll have art in common and she can finally impress him with her photos. She is definitely going to get over Noah after pining over him and stewing over all of the mistakes she made with him eighteen months ago.
Almost as soon as it starts, Sadie’s summer isn’t what she expects. Her photography class is great. But making new friends comes with new challenges. Her father remains as distant as ever. Noah seems to be popping up everywhere both in Sadie’s memories and in real life. Then there’s Sam–the boy Sadie never expected to meet–who only wants to be friends even as Sadie thinks she might want more.
Life seems simple when it’s seen through a photograph and the details are clear. Real life, it turns out, is much less focused. To understand all of the things she’s had along, Sadie may have to give her entire life a second look in Summer in the Invisible City (2016) by Juliana Romano.
This standalone contemporary novel is set over the course of one summer in New York City (mostly Manhattan). Readers familiar with the city will recognize familiar settings and smart nods to the city (high school friends from Xavier, movies in Union Square with candy smuggled in from Duane Reade) while realizing that Sadie lives in a privileged (largely white) version of New York.
Narrated by Sadie both in the present and in flashbacks of time spent with Noah or her father, Summer in the Invisible City asks a lot of questions about relationships and how much someone should have to give up to maintain them. Sadie is desperate for approval from the people she thinks matter whether it’s popular girls, older guys, or her father. Sadie is so eager to show that she belongs with them that she spends most of the novel alienating the friends and family who have always been supporting her including her single mother and her best friend, Willa. Readers will soon realize that Sadie is sometimes self-destructive but her growth and development during the novel is all the sweeter because of that.
This nuanced story is further complicated by the poorly executed plot surrounding Sadie’s efforts to connect with her father. By the end of the story Sadie’s fraught relationship with her father is explained and reaches an unsatisfying but realistic resolution. What doesn’t make sense at any point in the story, is how things get to that point. Sadie has a loving and supportive mother. She is already eight or nine when she first meets her father and has seen him scant times since. Where does the idolatry come from? Sadie’s mother, unlike a lot of fictional parents, doesn’t sugarcoat his shortcomings anymore than she encourages a false sense of closeness and connection. That all comes from Sadie for reasons that are never clearly articulated in the text. (On a separate note, given the father’s absence for most of Sadie’s life, it’s also unclear why or how he and Sadie share a last name.)
Summer in the Invisible City is partly a summery romance and partly a story about a young artist finding her eye and voice with what she chooses to capture and present in her artwork. Reading about Sadie’s process and vision as she searches out new photography material is inspiring and compelling enough to erase questions debating whether or not print photography is on the verge of obsolescence. Recommended for readers who are fans of novels set in New York City, artists or aspiring artists, and fans of contemporary romances with a healthy dose of introspection.
Possible Pairings: Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff, City Love by Susane Colasanti, How to Love by Katie Cotugno, My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick, Just One Day by Gayle Forman, Making Pretty by Corey Ann Haydu, Everywhere You Want to Be by Christina June, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon