I love Jennifer Weiner. She’s high on the list of my favorite authors. But after reading Big Summer, I have reason to believe that she might have my house bugged.
I’m already partial to the characters she creates. Some of my favorites are Jo and Bethie in Mrs. Everything, Rebecca in Little Earthquakes, and Allison in All Fall Down. They are all composed of relatable traits, some good and some bad. I can usually always see myself in their personalities, one way or another. But Daphne Berg, the star of Big Summer, isn’t just relatable. She is my mirror image.
Daphne is an influencer on Instagram, a plus-sized model trying to bolster her confidence—as we all are these days. She tries to keep it real, tries to engage with her followers without sounding chirpy or trite. Weiner keeps it real about how tedious it is to keep up an online persona. Everything is calculated, cultivated towards a group of people with whom you want to genuinely connect. You want to connect on a human level, but you also want their continued engagement because engagement = profit. Throughout the book, Daphne works on toeing the fine line between real-reality and Insta-reality.
I can relate as a millennial living in an increasingly digital age. Furthermore, I run three Instagram pages, a Tumblr blog, and a Twitter account. The latter two have about 7,000 followers combined. I’m used to life online. I feel comfortable, I’ve made friends, and I can express myself creatively and without fear. People follow me because of my content; what I want to post is what they want to see. I cultivated my audience much in the way that Daphne has… only, unfortunately, I don’t get paid.
To supplement her income as an influencer, Daphne works as a part-time after school nanny, taking care of two children. To supplement my career as a freelancer writer, I also work part-time as an after school nanny, taking care of two children. Yet another area where we’re eerily similar.
She doesn’t dive too deep into the lives of the kids, but it’s not necessary to do so. As a reader, and moreover, as a nanny, I could glean just how much Daphne loved these kids without Weiner having to overstate it.
“Izzie had ice-hockey practice, playdates, and birthday parties; Ian had his therapist. Izzie was part of a running club and sang in a choir. Ian had his allergist. Izzie was a sweet, outgoing girl, but Ian was my favorite. He reminded me of me.”
Those words rang way too true when I read them. As a parent, a nanny, any sort of caregiver, it’s impossible (or at the very least, immoral) to pick a favorite child. But it’s hard not to be partial to one.
Between the two girls I nanny, Evelyn is Izzie and Reese is Ian. Reese and I have had a special connection for over four years now, and she calls me her best friend and her twin. The feeling of being that person for a child who doesn’t have many friends, who is significantly different than her clean-cut family, is indescribable. Daphne understands that, too. She and Ian are close; they communicate like close friends. She doesn’t patronize him, she treats him like an equal. They have real conversations that matter. Their relationship is special and rare. Witnessing their relationship made me consider that perhaps Reese sees herself in me similarly to how I see myself in Daphne.
One day, while at Izzie and Ian’s house, Daphne gets a surprise visit from her old friend, Drue. Drue asks Daphne to be in her wedding after the two had gone years without speaking. Specifically, since an incident during their sophomore year of college. There was a disturbance in a nightclub perpetuated by Drue, then a video posted of it that launched Daphne’s online career. Since that night, the two friends went radio silent.
Daphne describes Drue as the type of person that instantly reels you in. When Daphne spends time with Drue, she feels important. She feels alive. Drue turns everything into an adventure and makes Daphne feel like her best self.
But Drue is a user. When she has no use for Daphne, she ignores her existence until she needs her again. It’s a cycle that goes around and around, and this type of friend is something that I can relate to… hard.
People in Daphne’s inner circle see Drue for what she is: a master manipulator. When Daphne ditched her at the club that fateful night, finally fed up with her antics, Drue didn’t come back into Daphne’s life until she needed something from her old friend. And she knew Daphne would give in. Manipulators always know.
Daphne, being older now, sees the situation with Drue clearer. But that doesn’t mean she can avoid being sucked in again. Darshini, Daphne’s best friend since the Drue years, warns her against falling into the trap again, but Daphne doesn’t listen. She’s certain that she’s past the point of falling for Drue’s tricks.
That’s how it goes with those types of friends. Everyone else can see what’s happening but you. Even if you think you won’t fall for it again, you probably will. Because you’re always right where the manipulator wants you. They’re always one step ahead. That’s how they live.
I have my own version of Darshini. Her name is Ellie. I have an amazing, supportive mom who’s there for me just as Daphne’s parents are there for her. Sadly, it’s hard for the lovely people in our lives to make a dent on the influence that manipulative friends have.
I won’t use my real ex-friend’s name, because she doesn’t deserve the recognition. I’ll call her Brianne. So, Daphne has Drue. I had Brianne.
On the days leading up to Drue’s wedding, all Daphne thinks about is how Drue makes her feel seen, and always has. Drue makes everything exciting, and when she needs Daphne, she really needs her.
It’s nice to feel needed. I loved being Brianne’s shoulder to cry on. I thought no one else could comfort her like I could.
Drue approaches Daphne and asks her to be her maid of honor because she has no real friends left. She’s been taking advantage of people for many years, so now she has no clue how to maintain substantial relationships. Daphne takes her up on the offer because, once again, she feels needed. It’s an alluring feeling. Even an addictive one. It’s nice to soak up the attention that Drues and Briannes give.
But when that attention ends, it ends hard. And to make things worse, those people typically don’t look back once they cast you aside.
But still, during the years they didn’t talk, Drue crossed Daphne’s mind a lot.
The worst part of when a best friend betrays you, in mine and Daphne’s case, is that there’s no closure, no goodbye. It’s not like they’re dead, just gone. But that absence is still worthy of grief.
Daphne feeling the pain from the hole that Drew left helped me realize that friendship heartbreak is very real. Especially when the breakups come out of nowhere, hit you like a truck, and leave you to pick up the pieces on your own.
Daphne, though she was angry at how she and Drue parted, didn’t lose the love she had for her friend. That’s something that people don’t talk about. We’re big on bucking up and moving on from someone who hurt us. But one of the many themes woven throughout Big Summer is that it’s okay to hold onto emotions. The good, the bad, the ugly; what you’re feeling is yours and yours alone, and you deserve to experience it wholly.
To this day, I still have love for Brianne. I hate that she put me second, I hate that she lied to me more times than I can count. But I miss staying up until 5am laughing with her. I miss calling her and talking for an hour in the middle of the work day. I miss our memories. I would never let her back into my life, but I miss her all the time. Reading about Daphne and Drue, I finally felt like someone understood.
Something that always resonates with me about Jennifer Weiner’s characters is that most of them are plus-sized women. And they’re not plus-sized as a plot device—meaning, the chubby girl gets a makeover and the hot guy finally sees her. The truth is, that when you’re plus-sized, it doesn’t just matter when you’re trying to get the guy. It’s in the back of your mind all the time, because your body is one that’s been scorned by the media and society for so long. I think, slowly but surely, Jennifer Weiner is turning that around.
She understands how plus-sized women exist in the world because she is plus-sized herself. As am I. I’m an inch away from six feet tall and I’ve stood heads above everyone else for my entire life. And height like mine doesn’t come with a waiflike body (most of the time).
I’ve never had huge body issues. Every now and then, I’ll get down on myself about my big feet or the way my chin looks in a candid picture. But while I may not be hating my body every second of the day, I’m not actively lauding it, either—because plus-sized women aren’t encouraged to do that.
Daphne struggles with that, too. She spent most of her life trying to be smaller. Diet tips from her grandma snuck into her subconscious and rooted themselves there. Even though her mother showed her all the love and body positivity she could ask for (luckily, I can say the same), the world is not always kind to people who wear jeans bigger than a size 12.
At one point, towards the end of the book, Daphne says, “Thank you, thighs.” She comes not only to a state of acceptance with her body, but a state of celebration. Because our bodies are much more than just the shells we inhabit. Our bodies do everything they can to keep us alive. And no matter if you’re a size 2 or a size 22, your body loves you. It deserves the same love in return, no matter how loudly society disagrees.
This review is a little different to the content I usually create, a little more personal. But it’s personal because Big Summer was a wonderful, cathartic, personal experience for me. It was a genuine, hilarious, heart-wrenching tale. And the least I can do to show Daphne Berg justice is to be as honest in my review as Jennifer Weiner is through the stories she tells.
By Jennifer Weiner
368 pages. 2020.