Mining well-worn themes of friends growing simultaneously together and apart, trauma and simple pleasures, the edge between childhood and adulthood, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s “This One Summer” is so effortless and beautifully executed that it delivers all these things while remaining cliche-free, and delivers a stunning, emotionally engaging, beating heart of a book.
Though Mariko Tamaki’s writing is lovely, full of character and expertly restrained, it is Jillian Tamaki’s perfect visuals that creep into your soul and take root forever. A strange choice of dark purple — almost black — line work over creamy almost yellow paper and with pale purple spot color tones, gives the book an immediately distinct and stunning feel. The pages are simply awash in emotion from panel one, and the entire book evokes instant nostalgia, a yearning for happier and more innocent times. The color choices make the book feel soft, subtle and welcoming in a way that black and white with spot grey would never be.
The character designs are exceptional and brilliantly considered, especially best friends and lead characters Rose and Windy. But others are worth exploration too: Rose’s mother is painfully thin and sickly, her depression making her appear fragile and lonely, bitter and without hope. By contrast, Rose’s aunt is full of life, more filled out with glossy bouncing hair and an infectious smile — there might have been a time when these sisters looked quite alike, but life has made them very different women in every way.
The object of Rose’s impractical and unfulfilled desire, an older boy that works at the corner store, deemed “The Dud” by Windy, is magnificently flawed. He’s thin with strong not traditionally handsome features, big ears and problem skin. But there are also moments, viewed from Rose’s perspective, where he appears suddenly more empirically handsome and it’s almost painfully relatable. It’s a wonderful choice and such authentic feeling work to keep the characters from falling into too-attractive stereotypes and it lends the book even greater depth and layers. This is particularly true with the two young female leads. Tamaki takes every opportunity to make them physically different — Rose is long and lithe, blonde and pale, flat and without curves. Meanwhile Windy is short and round, dark-haired and freckled, curved and bulging. At the same time Rose’s energy is so contained it is almost as if she doesn’t move or breathe on the page. She is still like the placid surface of a lake in both her personality and her physicality, while Windy is full of boundless frantic energy and better represents a babbling brook or crashing ocean waves.
Rose and Windy are friends of convenience, long-time summer vacation neighbors who have genuine affection for one another, but who are growing apart in every way that matters. Though this summer does not find the girls leaving as less than friends, it has that sad and distinctively authentic feeling that this was a year of change in every possible way — that you cannot go back and that nothing will ever be the same again.
On the writing side, Mariko Tamaki seamlessly contrasts Rose and Windy’s slow but inevitable separation with that of Rose’s parents as they struggle with past traumas and the reality that they want different things and have perhaps become different people. At the same time, Rose and Windy’s obsession with horror movies contrasts effortlessly with the real life horror that the adults and almost adults around them are enduring.
Though the themes and issues of “This One Summer” are large and emotional, Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki execute the story with such precision and care that it never tips into melodrama, instead preferring to be quiet and nuanced and thus infinitely relatable, real, and emotional. “This One Summer” is a near perfect book and an example of two creators working in such perfect sync they appear more as one creator than two.