In this review, writer Jae-Ha Kim explores Prime Video’s The Summer I Turned Pretty and the way it approaches its Asian American lead — and her love interests.
The Summer I Turned Pretty is a breezy series that tackles teenage summer romance (and lust) with vigor. It’s the latest adaptation of Jenny Han’s young adult novels, which include the To All the Boys trilogy. Though the plot is familiar, the lead actors are all incredibly attractive and likable, even when dealing with some of the less interesting aspects of this seven-episode Prime Video series.
When we first meet the show’s protagonist, Belly Conklin (newcomer Lola Tung) is not yet 16. Previously known as the hot girl’s bestie, Belly has – as her BFF Taylor (Rain Spencer) points out – become beautiful over the past year. What this actually means is that the teen finally grew breasts, lost her adolescent baby fat, and traded in glasses for contact lenses. That’s all it took for her to become one of the most sought-after girls at Cousins Beach, the summer vacation spot where her family has been visiting ever since she can remember. And it’s where her one-sided crush on Conrad Fisher (Christopher Briney) was born.
Unlike the Conklins who live a modest lifestyle, the Fishers are rich. They own a beautiful beach house and belong to the country club where Belly’s older brother Steven (Sean Kaufman) will work this summer. Susannah Fisher (Rachel Blanchard) is the effervescent blonde matriarch who’s harboring a devastating secret. She wants one last perfect summer with her family and friends before she faces the truth. Susannah and Laurel Park (Jackie Chung) – Belly’s novelist mother – have been best friends since college. And parallel to Belly’s relationship with Taylor, Laurel has an inferiority complex as the popular girl’s sensible friend.
It’s an interesting dynamic to showcase, because some Asian Americans will tell you that when we were growing up, we wished we were white – not because we actually wanted to be white, but because it seemed like our lives would be easier in terms of acceptance if we weren’t minorities who are regarded as perpetual foreigners. Chung plays Belly’s divorced mother as someone unaware of her own attractiveness, perhaps because she never experienced a summer where her prettiness was celebrated.
Race and ethnicity aren’t mentioned much, but there are a few touches that allude to the Asian half of Belly’s lineage. For instance, as is customary with Korean women, Laurel kept her maiden name when she married.
But one of the odd things I’ve noticed about the film and TV adaptations of Han’s books is that while a lot of effort went into finding the perfect Asian American actress to play the half Korean/half white female leads, none of their love interests are even kind of Asian. It’s especially odd when some of the beaus were written to be ethnically Asian. In the 2009 novel The Summer I Turned Pretty, Belly describes Cam – who she briefly dates – as a good-looking boy who’s taller than her brother and the Fisher boys. “He looked like he was maybe half-white, half-Japanese, or Korean maybe,” she says. “He was so pretty I felt like I could draw his face, and I didn’t even know how to draw.”