Amanda Clay reviews The Summer I Wasn’t Me by Jessica Verdi

thesummeriwasntme

Here’s a confession: I don’t do Jesus.  I don’t like queer books with religious themes, I don’t like books about conversion camps, I don’t like gay Christian apologist books with their interminable, inevitable scenes where one character quotes the Bible and the other character dismantles the hate with explanations of what surely this REALLY means (when actually the word ‘abomination’ is pretty clear). I think these books, these conversations, are boring and I have no sympathy for people who’ve bought into these ridiculous, misogynistic mythologies.  Having said that, Jessica Verdi’s The Summer I Wasn’t Me is still a very good book.

Lexi’s always known she likes girls. She also knows that this is information best kept to herself, especially after the death of her father and its devastating effects on her mother. So Lexi keeps her crush hidden in a secret notebook. Unfortunately she forgets to hide the notebook. When her mother finds it, all of Lexi’s secrets are exposed and she is forced to spend the summer at New Horizons, a camp that promises to cure her of these feelings.

At first it’s not too bad. Lexi really wants to change, to help reconnect with her mother, and she meets sympathetic friends among her fellow campers.  She also meets Carolyn, a beautiful girl whose sadness and struggle surpasses even Lexi’s pain. Soon she and Carolyn are involved much more deeply than camp rules allow, and keeping this new love a secret only exposes the much more sinister secrets of New Horizons. But by this time, Lexi knows that there’s nothing wrong with her, and nothing she won’t do to protect the people she cares about.

What sets this book apart from other books about queer Christians and conversion is the extreme lack of church.  I also think it is this aspect which makes the book most interesting and readable. Instead of pages of Biblical debate, we have time to get to know the characters and care about their connections and journeys and growth throughout the story.  Lexi is a good protagonist, strong and sure of herself, though vulnerable enough for sympathy and an interesting story arc. Carolyn is a worthy crush, relatably flawed,  and theirs is a romance worth rooting for.  The rest of the supporting cast is well drawn, too, from their friend Matthew, the voice of resistance, to the deeply creepy camp founder/director, whose true colors come through all too easily.  This book may not have the most groundbreaking theme, nor the most innovative storyline, but it is a good, realistic and ultimately hopeful read. Something for which we can all be thankful!

TRIGGER WARNINGS: physical abuse, religious bigotry

Danika reviews The Summer I Wasn’t Me by Jessica Verdi

thesummeriwasntme

Before picking up The Summer I Wasn’t Me, I was in a bit of a reading slump. I just didn’t feel like reading anything. After reading the first couple sentences of this one, though, I was ready to give it a try. Instead, I read it in two days, impatiently waiting for when I could pick it up again. I have a soft spot for lesbian young adult novels, and part of that is because YA tends to be so easy to read. Despite the emotionally heavy subject matter, the writing makes this easy to fly through.

The Summer I Wasn’t Me is about an ex-gay camp (aka a “pray away the gay” camp). From this premise alone, I already knew it was likely to be very emotional. But just a handful of pages in, I already felt heartbroken for the main character, Lexi. Her father passed away six months ago, and since then her mother has retreated inside herself, leaving Lexi to take care of the both of them. When her mother discovers that Lexi is gay, she acts as if she has lost Lexi, too. Feeling like the only family she has left is slipping away from her, Lexi agrees to go to a camp to “fix” it.

The camp itself is jarring. It seems goofy at times (think But I’m a Cheerleader), but is in turn horrific and traumatizing. Both aspects seemed over-the-top in parts, until I realized that these things actually do happen. It may seem cartoonish for someone to claim that Harry Potter encourages satanism, but that is a claim that was actually made. And violence and abuse clashes with the comic aspect of these pink and blue play-acting exercises, except that abuse did happen in these camps. (I say “did” because I’m not sure how common these types of camps are anymore, after the disbandment of Exodus International.)

As for the characters, I loved the main characters. Lexi is very sympathetic, even though I want to shake her a lot. She spends most of the book questioning whether the ex-gay camp can work, and whether it’s a force of good or not. She seems naïve at times, but I guess that’s to be expected in this situation. She desperately wants to put her family back together, and she’s willing to overlook a lot to accomplish that. Matthew quickly becomes a close friend of Lexi’s, and he is loudly skeptical of everything about the program. He’s sarcastic and funny, but also pushes too hard sometimes. Absolutely believable and endearing. And then there’s Carolyn, Lexi’s love interest. Yes, Lexi walks into a “pray-away-the-gay” camp and immediately develops a crush on a pretty girl. I couldn’t help laughing at the absurdity of putting a bunch of gay people together in order to make them not gay. If you couldn’t suppress liking girls surrounded by straight homophobes, how are you supposed to resist being surrounded by cute lesbians? Carolyn isn’t perhaps as well-developed as Lexi and Matthew, but you can see why Lexi’s fallen for her, and their interactions are adorable. The other characters, though, feel flat. They are assigned four people groups, and apart from Carolyn and Matthew, Lexi’s group also includes Daniel. Although Daniel gets a lot of page time, he never seems as interesting or well-rounded as the others. And the other characters don’t make much of an impression. I can’t help compare this book to The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which has an excellent, realistic depiction of a “gay conversion” camp. In Cameron Post, the people running these camps seem to have good intentions. You get to understand them, and they’re developed as fully as the main characters. This story just doesn’t do that. I wasn’t interested in the people in charge, and they seemed interchangeable for the most part. In some ways, I feel like this is a book meant to educate straight readers on this level of homophobia. I think most queer people are aware of ex-gay camps, but skimming the Goodreads review of this title brings up a lot of people who were horrified to learn that they exist. (For example, no, there is not any discussion of bisexuality in the novel. And there is also no acknowledgment that trans people exist, as they’re discussing the “true” nature of men and women. This is not just from the people running the camp, but also from Lexi herself.)

I have troubles settling my feelings for The Summer I Wasn’t Me, because it was a quick, easy read, that was usually enjoyable, but it also has some very dark, triggering scenes. [Trigger warnings that may also be spoilers, highlight to read: attempted sexual assault of a minor, violence, homophobia] It left me feeling muddled. But at the time of reading, I was absorbed. I found myself making faces at the book as I read it, frowning sympathetically and grinning in turn. And I was invested in Lexi’s journey, [spoilers] feeling sick as she resigned herself to a sham of a life, and cheering her on as she fights against that. [end spoilers] So I would recommend this book, but with the caveat that despite the easy-to-read writing style, and the goofiness of the camp, do be prepared for the narrative to face the actual consequences of the homophobia that goes into these institutions. At the same time, if you’ve reading The Miseducation of Cameron Post, don’t expect quite the same nuance from this story.