Buy The Summer I Wasn’t Me
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Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Reviewer: Melissa on April 15, 2014
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Lexi has a secret that she never intended for her mom to learn. Now the news is out, and she’s scared that what’s left of her family will fall apart for good…until she realizes that she can fix everything. If it means saving her family, she can change. She will learn to like boys. New Horizons summer camp has promised to transform her life, and there’s nothing that she wouldn’t try to start over again. However, in The Summer I Wasn’t Me, Jessica Verdi shows that sometimes love has its own path in mind…
Even though I had read the synopsis of The Summer I Wasn’t Me before the first page, which implies not only what Lexi’s secret is, but that her LGBTQ identity is threatening to destroy whatever’s left of her family. For a character like Lexi, the risk that her mother might crumble under the weight of knowing that she experiences same-sex attraction (SSA) is too great because she’s still dealing with her father’s death. Of course, Verdi doesn’t just tell us that the mental health of Lexi’s mom is one of the big driving factors behind her decision to ahead New Horizon, a religious camp with a reputation for turning gay teens straight, she shows us in many ways. In fact, Verdi shows how the strained relationship between Lexi and her mother impacts the MC’s decisions throughout the novel. Even as early as the first and second pages, Lexi’s concern for her mother spacing out, something that has afflicted her ever since Lexi’s dad died, is her priority, not dealing with nerves about what the “de-gayifying” will entail. From this alone, readers are sure to see Lexi as a sympathetic and selfless character, one who is willing to do almost anything to keep her mom healthy, even if it means that she doesn’t get everything she wants in life. That said, ultimately, readers hope that Lexi changes her mind about just how much she’s willing to sacrifice.
If this was all there was to know about Lexi and the other three members of her New Horizons group – Matthew, Carolyn, and Daniel – then it would be rather disappointing. However, each of the characters, especially these four, are clearly delineated from one another with disparate desires, goals, and reasons for sticking with the treatment plan advised by Mr. Martin, the charismatic leader of New Horizons and success story of de-gayification, and the rest of the New Horizons staff. Lexi, of course, is the one that the reader gets to know best, since we have her interior monologue to read, but that doesn’t mean that the other group members are rendered completely flat. If anything, Verdi shows us that they have more layers than we see from the beginning. Matthew, who is upfront about having a boyfriend named Justin back home, starts off as the strongest voice of dissent among the 16 campers, suggesting time after time that the methods they teach are a complete scam, but there is another reason that he agreed to attend that he might not be telling the rest of the group. Carolyn is more guarded about her life back home and her reasons for coming to New Horizons, but there’s more to her story than being the pretty girl who always dreamed of having a husband and children. Daniel has waited for four years to meet the minimum age requirement to attend New Horizons after being rejected for his SSA to another boy at age 11, and while he is the most accepting of the camp’s methods, there are even other layers to him. Each of the complications that Verdi adds to their characters makes them into real, authentic people, and not the stereotypes that might have been used by a less strong and assured author.
Beyond the characters, I was impressed by the way brings the setting of New Horizons and the mentality of Lexi’s mother to life, even when it disturbed me, and I’m certain that other readers will, too. By page 12, it was clear that Lexi’s mom likened SSA as a disease or illness, which made me uncomfortable. However, the methods for “curing” teens at New Horizons are even more bizarre, including everything from forcing the girls to wear a white and pink uniform, while the boys are clad in head-to-toe blue. The girls and boys dorms are similarly decked out in gender-specific features, such as vanities and makeup and desks and sport books respectively, while the proscribed activities are based on 1950s gender roles and stereotypes about what gay and lesbian teens would enjoy and excel at doing. In the world of Mr. Martin, a short-haired woman who works outside of the home and doesn’t know how to cook or care for children may display questionable tendencies even though a critical eye can see that these characteristics don’t define one’s sexuality. Verdi also clearly recognizes this issue, and thus, she shows a range of campers, including one gay character, who is a great baseball player to show they’re stereotypes, not fact.
Through these and other plot points, Verdi exposes the hypocrisy of religious-based de-gayifying camps in The Summer I Wasn’t Me, and ultimately, proves that her novel is one that anyone interested in complex looks at LGBTQ experiences must read.
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