I won this book through a Goodreads giveaway and received a review copy from Swoon Reads. This does not affect my rating or opinions.
Summary: Rule #1 – Never fall for a summer boy.
Fresh out of high school, Babe Vogel should be thrilled to have the whole summer at her fingertips. She loves living in her lighthouse home in the sleepy Maine beach town of Oar’s Rest and being a barista at the Busy Bean, but she’s totally freaking out about how her life will change when her two best friends go to college in the fall. And when a reckless kiss causes all three of them to break up, she may lose them a lot sooner. On top of that, her ex-girlfriend is back in town, bringing with her a slew of memories, both good and bad.
And then there’s Levi Keller, the cute artist who’s spending all his free time at the coffee shop where she works. Levi’s from out of town, and even though Babe knows better than to fall for a tourist who will leave when summer ends, she can’t stop herself from wanting to know him. Can Babe keep her distance, or will she break the one rule she’s always had — to never fall for a summer boy?
Genre(s): NA, YA, Contemporary, Romance
Representation: bisexual main character, past F/F relationship, F/M relationship, Chinese-American secondary character (best friend)
Content warnings: underage drinking, substance use (weed, non-explicit), toxic/manipulative friendship
*This post includes affiliate links, which means that if you click through and buy a book I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. [Full disclaimers here.]
Friends, this review took forever to write because I have so many feelings about this book — it covers so much ground without feeling cluttered at all, with diverse characters and nuanced themes, wrapped in a deceptively familiar-sounding story set in an idyllic small town that I kind of want to pack right up and move into. So many aspects hit so close to home, and I know it’s only March but I may have found my favorite read of the year; at the very least, it’s my new favorite summertime book.
It’s fucking terrifying. We’re legally adults, but I don’t feel like one. Not in any of the ways that matter.
This is the kind of New Adult content I want to see more of: well-developed characters with some idea of who they are and who they want to be, but still navigating their changing place in the world and among the people they love, transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. (The book is classified as YA for publishing purposes since currently “New Adult” suggests steamy romance, but the author confirmed that Small Town Hearts is intended and suitable for both YA and NA audiences.)
My college classmates and I frequently talk about how we aren’t prepared to do things like file our own taxes or call “real” adults (like professors and others’ parents) by their first names or decide our own futures; although we’re often joking, underlying the humor is very real existential anxiety. It’s a vulnerable but exciting stage of life, and it’s so reaffirming to read about characters who are also going through it.
I love how independent Babe is, not just figuratively but literally: at nineteen, she lives alone and holds down a full-time job; unlike her two best friends, her plans don’t include college. Although she does have a pretty concrete plan for the future, she doesn’t have it all figured out, nor has she already established a career and lifestyle the way so many contemporary Adult novels seem to open, which can be hard to relate to, as an NA-age reader. Her journey isn’t so much one of self-discovery (which we see often in YA), but the themes and struggles she grapples with are just as perplexing and complex.
I like all kinds of stuff. […] I like Star Wars and rereading things I’ve already read a dozen times and too many marshmallows in my hot chocolate. […] I like looking at the stars and the clouds and seeing the shapes the ancients used to see.
Babe, our narrator, is so relatable, by which I mean she’s literally me in an alternate life. She loves reading and movies and baking, and she cares about the environment (without being zero-waste or vegan or a super-activist), and she’s bisexual. Seriously, I love that she has multiple passions, because I’ve read so many characters who seem to have a one-track mind; it isn’t inherently bad, but amidst all the [both fictional and factual] stories of people who focus in on one interest and make a career/side hustle out of it, it’s so refreshing to see a protagonist who manages to pursue it all. (Also, holy wow, after those mouth-watering baking and picnic scenes I really, really want to try and recreate some of the food.)
Naturally Babe, as our narrator, gets the most “page time,” but the secondary characters have their own independent arcs and resolutions — and it’s all woven together so masterfully, which really contributes to that small-town feeling. Each and every character comes to life with all the details of their hobbies and frustrations and personality. And from Penny’s Chinese-American heritage (I adored the casual references to her mom’s soup dumplings and her zodiac-inspired art!) to Babe’s and her ex-girlfriend Elodie’s very different experiences with sexuality, all the diversity in this book makes my heart so happy. It’s sensitively written, so much more than “brownie-point” mentions, but it isn’t the primary focus of the story either.
The ease of our friendship made it so easy to forget that he was a summer boy. Made it easy to let my heart get involved. Hearts were fickle things, always willing to beat for the exact wrong person.
My heart currently beats for exactly one (1) boy, and his name is Levi Keller. He’s a sensitive artist, super supportive and thoughtful and just all-around a good person. The sparks between him and Babe were tangible (and I do not say this lightly, because of all the fictional couples I root for, only a few really make me physically feel their connection) and I wanted so badly for their relationship to work out, even understanding the hesitation on both sides.
As you might be able to tell from the summary, the romance isn’t the only relationship at stake; a childhood friendship is also under fire, and there’s some extra conflict and tension from her ex-girlfriend’s homecoming. Each of these is given attention because they all matter. Babe’s focus on repairing her friendship and protecting her heart is honestly exactly what I would’ve done in her shoes, so it was simultaneously satisfying and frustrating. Also, I am such a sucker for the development from “cute stranger” to “good friend” to (potential) romantic partner. Just saying.
Oar’s Rest is a place to rest your oars. It’s home.
I wouldn’t say that the setting feels like a character in and of itself, but there’s such a strong sense of community, of beloved traditions and general goodwill, that it does come to life in that way. Oar’s Rest is a dream of a small tourist town, one that I already want to revisit: the lighthouse where Babe lives, the Busy Bean where she works and sells her baked goods, the Maine beach, and most importantly the people who look out for each other.
Quotes are taken from an Advance Reader Copy and may change upon publication.