‘The Sum­mer I Wasn’t Me’, Fic­tion by Jessica Verdi

Outlook - - CONTENTS - By Ru­maizah Abu Bakar

I was fas­ci­nated by The Sum­mer I

Wasn't Me. This young adult fic­tion ti­tle deals with a sce­nario that is not common in this coun­try: youths hav­ing their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion ad­justed.

The 17-year-old pro­tag­o­nist, Alexis (aka Lexi), finds her­self hav­ing to step up and take charge when her fa­ther dies and her mother loses her grip on life. And then her un­sta­ble mother dis­cov­ers that Lexi is at­tracted to girls... Liv­ing as they do in a con­ser­va­tive small town, this is to­tally un­ac­cept­able, so Lexi is bun­dled off to camp New Hori­zons, which pur­ports to "re­ha­bil­i­tate" gay youths. Lexi wants her mother to get bet­ter, so she at­tempts to make sense of the pro­gramme - and her ef­forts seem to pay off, as her mother re­gains her fo­cus and spirit.

The novel starts off well, and au­thor Jessica Verdi's prose is clear and smooth. She shines when she's de­scrib­ing things like set­tings and char­ac­ters' ap­pear­ances. The world of New Hori­zons is well-cre­ated and I could pic­ture it vividly: cab­ins in the moun­tains, nat­u­ral sur­round­ings and fresh air, girls in pink and boys in blue, all on a strict sched­ule to re­learn the ba­sic roles of their gen­der.

The campers are formed into groups of four and they have to stay in their group­ings at all times. Lexi is placed with Matthew, Daniel and Carolyn - the four soon bond with and support each other, as in­tended by the pro­gramme. Among the four, Matthew is the most fully fleshed out character; he's self-as­sured, re­bel­lious, pas­sion­ate, and hits if off with Lexi. Daniel is con­vinc­ing enough; timid, God-fear­ing and se­ri­ous about "get­ting bet­ter". Carolyn, on the other hand, comes across as a rather flat character; a pretty ath­lete, she is the ob­ject of Lexi's at­trac­tion, mak­ing Lexi doubt her decision to get with the pro­gramme for her mum's sake.

Verdi paints some beau­ti­ful mo­ments in this book. I like how F. Scott Fitzger­ald's The Great Gatsby, the only per­sonal item Lexi is al­lowed to take into camp, be­comes a tool of com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween her and Carolyn. Des­per­a­tion leads to cre­ativ­ity and there are amus­ing ex­changes as Gatsby trav­els back and forth be­tween the two ... be­fore it comes back to bite them. Another sweet mo­ment is when Lexi and Daniel are paired off on a chap­er­oned out­ing; their date starts off pla­ton­i­cally but heads to­wards some­thing else be­fore the evening con­cludes.

Through­out the novel, we see Lexi strug­gle, caught be­tween be­ing the good daugh­ter by "re­cov­er­ing" and drop­ping out to give in to her new­found at­trac­tion. This is a teenager in a tough sit­u­a­tion - yet, I could not em­pathise much with Lexi as I could not feel her in­ter­nal bat­tles. She is calm most of the time; there is no fierce emo­tional tur­moil or self de­bate to draw read­ers into her strug­gles. I felt that the character of Lexi does not come through; it is as if the au­thor was hold­ing back. And then, to­wards the end, Lexi sud­denly as­sumes a more ma­ture point of view and comes up with in­stant so­lu­tions to prob­lems.

The plot crawls in the first three­quar­ters of the book be­fore it sud­denly picks up pace and rushes off to a neatly tied-up end­ing. I would have liked for the novel to have delved deeper into the is­sues th­ese young peo­ple face. Com­plex mat­ters are over-sim­pli­fied and ev­ery­thing is rec­ti­fied too eas­ily in the end. The bad man gets caught, ex­pos­ing that all is not as it ap­peared to be. The frag­ile mother be­comes strong and is sud­denly tol­er­ant of what she had pre­vi­ously per­ceived as short­com­ings in her daugh­ter. Per­haps some­thing hap­pens to up­lift her character to another level in that short pe­riod that Lexi is at the camp, but I do not get a sense of this jour­ney.

Over­all, I think Verdi's premise holds a lot of po­ten­tial that is, un­for­tu­nately, not re­alised. How­ever, I would still rec­om­mend this book to those who want a glimpse of what a "de-gay­i­fy­ing" camp is like, as this unique world is well-por­trayed by the au­thor.

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