Saturday, April 23, 2016
Review: Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar
Title: Summer Skin
Author: Kirsty Eagar
Rating: 5 Stars
Summer Skin is the type of New Adult novel I've been waiting to be written; a book that is sexy, passes the Bechdel test, and discusses feminism without shame or pretense. It's a story of two rival schools--Unity, co-ed, and Knights, all-male and distinctly elite. Last year the Knights men made a bet to sleep with a Unity freshman and this year, the Unity girls are out for revenge. The story opens with Jess, a Unity girl, sneaking onto the Knights campus to steal a Knights jersey--the prize for the Unity who humiliates a Knights man the most on the night of their annual toga party. But Jess is seen by Blondie, an arrogant Knights guy who she can't seem to get out of her head and when she encounters him again at the toga party, that's when the fun truly begins.
Jess and Blondie have a crazy relationship. It's messy and isn't perfect, which I love. They'll be in a middle of a steamy scene and suddenly it'll get awkward or uncomfortable and it all felt so desperately real that I couldn't help but love each and every moment of this book. Plus, the majority of their relationship lies in their conversations trying to understand one another. To Jess, Mitch (Blondie) seems to be just another Knights guy--willing to use women for sex without sustaining a relationship with them first--and Jess wants to be more than that. But also, she doesn't want to judge Mitch for his actions or the women he's been with for their decisions. Just because she requires more than a nameless face for sex doesn't mean that everyone does. But that concept of feminism--of women owning their agency--is so difficult to internalize.
This book is all about understanding what it means to be a feminist and using that definition however you see fit; for Jess that means that she doesn't feel comfortable having sex unless she has some sort of relationship with the person, for her friends it means entirely different things and their difficulty navigating those waters is what makes this such a phenomenal story. There's one scene in particular where Jess is talking to her Instagram famous friend about her insecurities--why does her friend constantly feel the need to post on Instagram?--and she admits that though she has judged her friend, she also admires her. I think that's the crux of discovering feminism at any point in your life--you judge others for their actions, whether it be their sexual liberty or their lack of sexual actions--but you're also torn between admiring them and wanting to be them as well. It's so hard to be okay with being you and rationalizing your own decisions to yourself, especially when the whole world seems to be of a different opinion, so I really love that we get to explore this tension with Jess in such an authentic manner.
Mitch, too, isn't all he seems on paper. The guy is screwed up--won't kiss, won't have sex, definitely will touch--but his relationship with Jess evolves and changes with time which I appreciate. It's difficult and certainly not an easy slope to climb but I enjoyed getting a glimpse into his world as well--the pressures he faces from guys around him, the way his friends think about women, etc. It isn't easy to be a feminist and be a man. We think it is but sometimes, society and circumstances are built in such a way that it's so hard for men to break out of their molds, too. Like Jess, I'd often sway between frustration and swoon when it came to Mitch but by the end, I understood his perspective too do, kudos to Eagar for not making this one-sided and flat but instead turning this three-dimensional and complex and all-too-real.
Summer Skin is so, so good. It features healthy discussions about sex, not just with partners but also with friends and adults. It centers around Jess and Mitch's relationship but also revolves around them individually and their struggles with friendship and college and figuring out what they want. Plus, there's the tension between Unity and Knights that persists throughout, the forbidden element of Jess and Mitch's affair, not to mention Eagar's distinct writing style that never fails to amaze me. I only wish similar books were being written with different characters and different races and genders and socio-economic statuses so that we'd have a whole slew of novels that discussed feminism and sex so that teens didn't have to feel so alone when they glanced at their bookshelves. But maybe this is the start of that revolution; I certainly hope so.