A clever, romantic coming of age story that deserves your attention. Guest review by Catherine Heloise.
Kat’s note: This author has been on my to-try list for a while, so I was thrilled when Catherine volunteered to write a guest review for Kirsty Eagar’s latest book! But first, a little bit about Catherine:
By day, I work as a scientific coordinator in a medical research Institute. By night, I sing Bach and Brahms and other composers whose names do not start with B, bake incessantly, worry about politics, read as much escapist fiction as I can get my hands on (these two things are related), and write three blogs — one about food, one about politics, and, most recently, one for short stories inspired by the Paris Metro. I also write an occasional music blog. Periodically, I want to review a book, but starting a fifth blog would be ridiculous, so here I am…
Authors I love to read include Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, Robin McKinley, Laura Florand and Courtney Milan, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.
I won this book as part of the Australia Day Book Giveaway Blog Hop (which is responsible, in most years, for me spending the public holiday diligently reading blog posts and trying to come up with thoughtful comments in order to get yummy free books by Australian authors). This is an annual giveaway of books by Australian authors in a wide range of genres, and this year I was super lucky and managed to win several romance novels. Score!
Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar was the first one to arrive and it looked very promising indeed, with a bright pink cover, and a highly entertaining tagline:
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.
It also had a cover quote from Clem Ford, calling it ‘the feminist love story that girls have been waiting for’ — also a good sign for this reader. To my further delight, it is set in Brisbane, a city I don’t know well, but have enjoyed visiting. It seems to me that most high-profile romances (and indeed other novels) set in Australia are rural romances, and I can understand why — the bush has a certain glamour, and is much more exotic to a foreign audience. And let’s face it, that’s a big market. But as one of the 86% of Australians who live in a city or inner regional areas, it’s fun to see a story set somewhere that’s a bit closer to the Australia I know.
Our protagonist in this story is Jess ‘Flash’ Gordon, a second-year student at Unity College, who is out for vengeance. Last year, the jocks from Knights College did something terrible to her best friend, and this year, Jess is going to make them pay. But of course, it isn’t quite as simple as that.
I should probably digress here, for any overseas readers, to note that college means something a bit different here to what it means in the US. Rather than being the place where you do your undergraduate degree, a college here is a residence on or near campus with food and utilities provided, and often other amenities such as tutors, sporting teams, and the like. Shared rooms aren’t a thing here, either, though one usually shares a bathroom with everyone on your corridor, and sometimes facilities like microwaves (though not on my floor when I was there, because someone in the year prior to mine got drunk and put a dim sim in the microwave for two hours to see what would happen, and what happened was that he got bored and wandered off and the dim sim exploded and the microwave caught fire, and that was the end of microwaves on our corridor. Or so I was told.)
As colleges are generally more expensive than a share apartment, most of the students who stay in them are either from rural areas, or are first year students who want to meet people — a lot of people move out in their second or third year into share apartments, and plenty more live at home with their parents for a year or two before moving out with friends.
And each college tends to have its own identity and rivalries with neighbouring colleges. In Summer Skin, Unity College is a very progressive, small-l-liberal sort of college. It’s co-ed, a bit hipster-ish, a bit free-spirited, and clearly prides itself on being welcoming and supportive of difference (though in retrospect, I don’t recall noticing a single character at Unity who wasn’t straight and white — there’s a boy at Knights who I think is Torres Strait Islander, though I now can’t find where it said that, but that’s about it). Knights college is all male, very into sports, and feels very private-school-for-rich-jocks.
Eagar sucked me into the story very early in her first chapter, in which Jess was furtively hunting all over Knights college for *something*, but we didn’t really know what or why. And then she got caught, sort of, and wound up in a cryptic conversation with a nameless Knights boy, who she dubs Blondie. Here’s a bit of dialogue:
‘I know you’re lying.’
Jess whirled around. ‘Excuse me?’
Blondie wasn’t looking at her; he was measuring out washing powdr. ‘The song,’ he said calmly. ‘They’re the words, aren’t they?’
Jess realised he was referring to the song now playing on the radio. ‘Yeah, I guess,’ she said. He’d been repeating Meaghan Trainor’s lyrics, but was there a subtext?
‘You should know. It’s one of yours.’
‘How do you mean?’
He sprinkled powder over his clothes, his tone dismissive. ‘It’s a chick song.’
There was the subtext: he was a dick. ‘I didn’t realise music had a gender,’ Jess said.
Eagar has a highly enjoyable style, very dry and witty. It is also the sort of writing that reminds me in some indefinable way that Australian English is its own mini-dialect — perfectly intelligible to another English speaker, but somehow the word choices or phrasing are not quite those you’d find in a novel by an American or English or Canadian writer. For me, this is relaxing to read on a level that I didn’t even know was there.
The story is told entirely from the viewpoint of Jess. It’s tight third person, so we get to enjoy her inner thoughts, and her voice is lovely, very acerbic and very consciously feminist, and she won’t take shit from anyone, though sometimes her anger runs ahead of her brains. Jess is studying economics, and plays with the sharemarket in her spare time, and she is ever so slightly obsessed with setting things on fire (which gives me hives, but Brisbane is a lot wetter than Melbourne, and she is always careful to be safe about it). She is very loyal, very good at speaking her mind and saying what she means. She also seems emotionally a bit all over the shop, but then, she’s nineteen or so, and who isn’t a disaster about relationships at nineteen? Speaking of which, she is also recently out of a relationship with a boyfriend who will not let go — except that he does disappear from the story quite peacefully about a third of the way in and is never seen again. This is, of course, how things work in real life but somehow threw me, as I thought he was being set up to cause trouble later, and I kept expecting him to reappear.
But no — our Jess doesn’t need an ex-boyfriend to cause trouble later, because she has Blondie, who is, as she so cleverly deduced earlier, a bit of a dick, though also not at all stupid. He is also, as it turns out, not going to disappear from her life after the first, or even second encounter, because he kind of sort of likes her, even though she is a girl, and he’s also really attracted to her, even though he is absolutely not going to sleep with her, or kiss her, because he doesn’t do kissing, or heaven forbid, give her his phone number or room number or anything else that might imply a relationship. Jess isn’t sure she likes him very much, either, but he is clever, and amusing, and kind of hot, so…
It’s hard to write about this story without giving the plot away, because it does twist and turn all over the place. And we are always going to have more sympathy for Jess, because while both characters are screwed up, we can see the inside of Jess’s head and see where she is coming from, while our friend Blondie (and I’m not giving you his name because it’s a minor spoiler) is busy performing toxic masculinity for large portions of the book. He’s not violent, and he is pretty good on consent (though some of his lines, ugh), but he is unbelievably sexist, and has a real knack for saying appalling, deliberately hurtful things if he thinks Jess is getting too close to him. There is an element of self-defense about this (he really has earned his issues, and Jess does something pretty awful to him at the start of the book.), but it does not make him particularly sympathetic.
‘Oh, that’s ladylike.’
The sneer in his voice. As though she wasn’t worth even a pretence at courtesy.[…] ‘You forgot to say that a lot of your friends are guys.’
‘A lot of my friends are guys,’ Jess said, sliding out from under him. […]
‘They’re not your friends. They’re just guys who wouldn’t mind doing you, and they’ve worked out that familiarity gives them an advantage.’
Jess flicked her Zippo on and stared at the flame. ‘You’re telling me this because a lot of your friends are girls?’
‘None of my friends are girls.’
She snapped the Zippo shut. ‘And that’s a good thing, is it?’
‘At least I’m honest.’
Blondie improves slowly but significantly, as the book progresses, though a lot of the changes in him happen off-stage (he tends to just disappear from sight when dealing with stuff, which again, makes it harder to feel sympathy for him), which is a bit of a pity. Then again, it means that we find ourselves once again standing with Jess, unsure whether to trust these changes or not.
But by the end of the book, he has dealt with a lot of his shit, and in the process, has learned how to be less of a dick. He even seems to have grasped that women are people, which is good. (Nor is Jess putting up with any of that ‘you aren’t like other chicks’ bullshit, and good for her). So I do find myself feeling happy with where the relationship is going by the end, and I think they do have a viable future together, though most of this is sorted out very much in the last chapter or two.
Having said that, I need to write a bit about what happens with the Big Revenge at the start, because it’s not OK, and while it is not written as though it is OK, it did seem to blow over fairly easily.
Teeny-tiny spoilers await you below…
Essentially, in the previous year, the Knights boys ran a sweep with a prize for who could get a Unity girl into bed after the joint college party — and then videotaped the act. The girl in question, Farren, chose not to report this because she didn’t want this one occasion to be the thing that defined her and her year, which is understandable, but also sad. In revenge, Jess and her team of freshers decide that they will have a competition to see who can lure a Knights boy back to their rooms, tie him up, and give him a makeover (involving shaving, hair-dye, etc.), which will then be posted on social media.
While this is less awful than what was done to Farren the previous year, I’m pretty uncomfortable with the fact that revenge is being taken on a completely different set of people to the ones who perpetrated the first act, and honestly, the bit with the unwilling makeover reminds me a lot of what happened to Bella in The Shameless Hour (Sabrina Bowen). While I felt that Blondie’s reaction was proportionate, and that things between him and Jess were settled in a way that seemed fair, it was also mentioned that another of the girls had apologised to one of the other boys who was tied up and shaved (all over, by the sound of it), but that he was still ‘Pretty shaken up, I think. And humiliated– it’s not like the Knights would be forgiving.’
And while Jess feels bad about being the ringleader for all this — and she and the other girls cop a predictable amount of sickening abuse and threats online as a result — that doesn’t actually undo what happened to the boy who was humiliated, any more than their revenge undoes what happened to Farren.
I don’t think Jess or Blondie or anyone else in this book was intended to be a perfect example of anything, or that how they dealt with this situation was meant to be an example of how feminism or solidarity is supposed to work, but it was something I found hard to forget.
Overall, I really enjoyed Summer Skin. I liked its overt feminism, and that it kept going to places I didn’t expect it to. It is not trying to be a sweet, escapist romp, but is instead messy and occasionally morally ambiguous in a way which feels very real, but not always very comfortable. I really enjoyed the two main characters — again, they felt like real people, which made it easier to forgive them when they did stupid, stupid things. I also liked the way intimacy between Jess and Blondie was negotiated, and that the things each of them was comfortable with and uncomfortable with did not follow usual patterns but made total sense for their characters. (Incidentally, while there are no long, explicit sex scenes, the author also doesn’t fade to black — there is a fair bit of sexy stuff going on, and while it is not described in great detail, it’s very much present.)
If you like clever romance that is also a coming of age story, with a good dash of feminism, a hero who is tortured and chauvinistic, but does eventually get his head out of his arse, a heroine who is smart and knows her own value, and an unusual setting (hooray for fiction set in Australian universities!), Summer Skin definitely deserves your attention.
Content advisory: Possible triggers relating to grief and harassment.