As a writer, it’s hard to tackle certain subjects with a level of objectivity that doesn’t scream “THIS IS REALLY MY OPINION ON THIS HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL SUBJECT BUT IT’S DELIGHTFULLY MASKED IN MY OBJECTIVE TONE, SEE?”
That’s why I hesitate whenever I pick up a book with controversial subject matter, and when my good friend Jess Verdi told me that her new contemporary YA novel The Summer I Wasn’t Me was about a girl whose mother sends her to an ex-gay summer camp, I was both intrigued and terrified.
I knew from her debut YA, last year’s My Life After Now which tackled HIV, that she had the writing chops, the wherewithal, and most importantly, the balls to take on this rather taboo concept, especially when her debut was so artfully crafted that it never wandered into “preachy” territories.
Still, I wondered whether or not Summer would, in fact, scream a little too loudly…
The novel begins with Lexi, the novel’s protagonist, in the passenger seat of her mother’s car as they drive through lush woods to New Horizons, a camp for teens who suffer — as if it’s a disease — from SSA (same-sex attraction).
Lexi will spend the summer in a reparative therapy program in order to make her mother happy, who was completely distraught when she accidentally stumbled across some incriminating evidence that pointed to Lexi’s attraction towards other girls. Her mothers beliefs, of course, are informed by religion, as are most of the main players who run the camp.
What Verdi does with the construction of her characters is unique and fascinating and, ultimately, becomes the novel’s most complex, layered element. Each of Lexi’s new friends, who are campers at New Horizons, are there for different reasons. Some are there because they’re being forced against their will, but some are there because they really, truly, deeply, genuinely want to change (again, for various reasons, but all of them are complex and real and human.) This squashed any reservations I may have had going into it: Verdi constructed a complex world of elaborate, multi-dimensional characters while at the same time pointing out how spirituality can actually be a strong reparable tool, but how strong religious convictions can be misinformed and based entirely off of misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Through a series of reparative therapy sessions that are excruciatingly detailed (and I mean that in the best possible way), Lexi — and the reader — begins to realize the inherent problem with such extreme religious practices: they’re not actually based on anything.
Ok, that’s not true. They’re based on fear. And that’s the scariest lesson to learn, especially for Lexi and her friends.
Verdi walks a tightrope across the lines of preachy and real, but ever the skilled writer that she is, she never crosses over into total preachy territory. All of the reactions where real, buried in real concerns, deep-rooted in real human emotions, and complex, so complex that I didn’t even need to stop and think about what I would be thinking if it were me in these situations because I was feeling everything that Verdi had written all at once. It was an exploration into a world that, as a gay man, I’ve always had a silent, morbid curiosity about, yet never actually wanted to get to know. It struck chords with me that, as the minutes, hours, and days that have gone by since I finished my first read, haven’t even registered yet; it’s the subtle reactions long after I’ve finished that make me stop and revel at Verdi’s marvelous web of words.
My favorite aspect of this auspicious ex-gay camp YA was the examination of, and often times overt commentary on, gender roles. Most of the reparative therapy sessions revolved around the campers, in one way or another, assuming societal gender roles. One of the points of (inner) contention for Lexi and these therapies are wrapped up in the assumptions that gay men and women are gay because they either:
- had horrible, inaccurate gender role models growing up,
- surround(ed) themselves with gender-bending ideas, people, concepts, etc.,
- never really understood the concept of gender boundaries; in other words, the belief that gender is as simple as “black” or “white.”
Aren’t there gray areas?
Gender roles include the guys at the camp asking out the girls, assuming male roles, playing sports, wearing blue clothing, and generally partaking in stereotypical male activities. Because that oughta cure the gay, right?
There are also questions of marriage and the roles within a marriage, especially from the object of Lexi’s affections.
Questions like: Can I be gay and get married and have children and a job and the life that I’ve always dreamed about? often arise, and it’s the important questions like these that make Verdi’s novel so wonderful.
That’s something that Lexi and her friends explore while at New Horizons, and Verdi does an incredible job at getting to the root of this problem throughout the novel by cloaking every action in a various shade of gray.
While there are so many reasons to read this impeccable YA novel that Laurie Halse Anderson herself would be proud of, I think my favorite element revolved around the usage of The Great Gatsby.
Curious? You’ll have to read it to see what I mean, but trust me, when you see what Verdi did and how she weaved Gatsby into this story, you’ll be just as awe-stricken as I was. It’s beautiful and exciting and I’m jealous because I didn’t think of it first!
All in all, Jess Verdi’s sophomore YA novel The Summer I Wasn’t Me is the book that everyone needs to read this summer. Don’t let the title of this blog distract you, though, because this book is not fluffy beach fare; it’s hard hitting, it’ll take your breath away in places (sometimes in gushy love ways, other times in rage-y ways), but most importantly, it’ll get you to truly think about what it means to be gay, to be born different and to be made to feel that “gay” is nothing more than a disease, a viral bug that can spread like germs, or a lesson taught to us because we love musicals (if you’re a guy) or trips to Home Depot (if you’re a girl.) It’ll open eyes, and that’s why this is the most important book you can read right now. I devoured it in four hours flat; I couldn’t put it down, even though at times I wanted to scream, cry, laugh, throw it across the room, and set it down in order to call the police on this fictional summer camp.
That’s the mark of a fabulous book!
So thank you, Ms. Verdi, for tackling such a hard topic and approaching it with care, love, and understanding (and for being such a kick-ass writer!)
(….Aaaaaaand if all of the above isn’t enough, she credits Lady Gaga and her song “Hair” for inspiring Lexi’s story. Because she we all just want to be ourselves and have those around us love us unconditionally for who we are, regardless of sexual preference, appearance, gender, race, ethnicity, etc.? That’s the crux of the message in The Summer I Wasn’t Me.)