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