Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar

Monday, March 21, 2016

*At the Melbourne launch, Kirsty mentioned the title of the novel being from Death Cab For Cutie's Summer Skin. (Which I love. I was quite the Death Cab For Cutie fan when I was seventeen.) Why not listen to it while you read my review? (Crooked Teeth is probably my favourite from that album, however...)*

Jess Gordon is out for revenge. Last year the jocks from Knights College tried to shame her best friend. This year she and a hand-picked college girl gang are going to get even.

The lesson: don't mess with Unity girls.

The target: Blondie, a typical Knights stud, arrogant, cold . . . and smart enough to keep up with Jess.

A neo-riot grrl with a penchant for fanning the flames meets a rugby-playing sexist pig - sworn enemies or two people who happen to find each other when they're at their most vulnerable?

It's all Girl meets Boy, Girl steals from Boy, seduces Boy, ties Boy to a chair and burns Boy's stuff. Just your typical love story.

I have read and loved each of Kirsty Eagar's previous novels. One thing that I especially admire about her work is the way in which she defies genre limitations; each of her novels is distinct, different. Every one of them is brave and original and, of course, very well-written. You never quite know what to expect when another one is published. And that's fantastic. When I found out Kirsty had a new novel coming out, I was very excited.

I was lucky enough to appear on a couple of panels with Kirsty's editor at National Young Writers' Festival last year, and she had advance copies of Summer Skin over which I oohed and ahhed. I may or may not have declared my love for the aforementioned editor when she said "You can keep that". And then clutched Summer Skin to my chest as if I had just discovered the Holy Grail.

I bought myself a finished copy of the novel at the Melbourne launch (held at Readings Carlton - my favourite bookshop in the universe). It was a double launch, along with Justine Larbalestier's My Sister Rosa, which I'm looking forward to diving into once I have a break from uni (all that Law reading has a way of frying your brain, preventing most other kinds of reading). It's always wonderful to get the chance to hear an author speak about their work, especially after having read the novel.

I will warn you that this novel is chock-a-block with sex scenes. When I got that first copy, I went down to the beach at Newcastle and started reading. And then reached one of those... um, interesting... sections, and looked about the beach, paranoid that people would know what I was reading. It felt like what I would imagine reading Fifty Shades of Grey out in public would feel like, which I would only do if every other book in existence had spontaneously combusted. Let's hope that doesn't happen.

Sex scenes. There's a lot of them. The characters are in their second year of uni, and there's sex and untoward language and drinking and smoking and a great deal of questionable behaviour. It's definitely for the older YA reader.

Is it an accurate reflection of the lives of young people? I've been the same age as the characters (quite recently) but I haven't lived in a college at uni. I presume it's an accurate depiction of that life but I couldn't personally relate to the characters on a lot of counts. Which is fine - I can still empathise with the characters even if they're not just like me. The setting reads as authentic, and the events which occur seem consistently realistic; it was easy to become immersed in their reality.

I loved that nothing about the novel was sanitised or minimised (so much drinking!), that the girls in the novel were unapologetic about enjoying sex, and that Jess, rather than being consistently likeable, was difficult and forthright and smart but still sometimes made poor decisions. There was a realism there; nobody is perfect at nineteen (or ever), not even intelligent, political girls. If you, like me, lead a life far tamer than these characters, it's a nice bit of escapism while still touching on issues that are universal when it comes to navigating relationships in young adulthood.

I love that it looks critically at slut-shaming, the misogynistic culture at some colleges (and uni in general), gendered sex expectations and the effects of porn, the all-pervasive impact of social media, women reclaiming their power... I never felt that it veered into being preachy or off-topic. Always relevant to the story. Consistently believable and engaging dialogue. It's not issues-based but it sure touched on a lot of issues. I would love to see a whole lot more feminist issues overtly dealt with in YA - a lot of YA is subtly feminist, but I loved that Summer Skin was so direct and political. (Because, after all, the personal is political.)

My only qualm? I was not a huge fan of Jess's love interest, Mitch. Your mileage may vary. Based on the reviews I've read, a lot of readers unreservedly love Jess and Mitch's relationship. I felt he consistently treated Jess poorly, and while his behaviour was later explained, I wasn't sure his and Jess's relationship ever became healthy. They're both flawed, realistic characters, and their relationship is complicated, but I was still not entirely comfortable with Mitch's treatment of Jess. It really comes down to reader interpretation, and Mitch was not my cup of tea.

Awesome upper YA fiction that I think will find many readers among adults; it's honest and raw and smart. I loved the dialogue, I loved the critical look at hook-up culture, I loved the flawed, unapologetic characters. It's intense. And definitely worth a read.

Summer Skin on the publisher's website.
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