Sometimes I love a book so much, I get nervous about reviewing it. How am I going to do it justice? Kirsty Eagar’s Summer Skin is one of those books. It’s been almost a month since I finished reading it. And I still get excited every time I look at it.
I often tell people I’m not into love stories. But that’s a lie. I go mad for them. When they’re good. It’s just that so often, especially in YA, these narratives are limited to emotionally abusive relationships where some supposedly smart and fiercely independent girl allows herself to be controlled and infantilised by an emotionally stunted jerk who periodically retreats to have a good sulk over how damaged and dangerous he is. I mean, ick. Although, I do get why these stories are so popular. Back in the day, I completely lost my head over Twilight. #TeamEdward. BUT even though those books gave me that wonderfully giddy feeling of falling in love, and endless fodder for idle daydreaming, they also made me deeply uncomfortable. Consequently, I spent waaaaay too much time and energy trying to justify to myself and my friends why it was okay that I enjoyed these hugely problematic books: See, if you hold them at arm’s length, squint a bit, train your eyes to skip over the endless chains of adjectives, ignore the 80+ year age difference and the fact that Ed’s being a vampire is arguably the least monstrous thing about him, they’re great! Where are the love stories that we can simply enjoy? That speak up in favour of healthy relationships and call out some of the bad behaviour and everyday sexism women are confronted with both on the page and in real life?
Summer Skin is such a book. As Clementine Ford proclaims on the cover it’s: ‘…The feminist love story that girls have been waiting for.’ Hallelujah!
Eagar has been on my radar for a little while, although Summer Skin is the first of her books that I’ve read. She’s the author of three previous YA novels: Raw Blue (2009), Saltwater Vampires (2010) and Night Beach (2012). All three are on my TBR, and I’m particularly keen to get my hands on a copy of Night Beach, which the Goodreads’ blurb describes as, ‘A gothic story about the very dark things that feed the creative process.’ Shall hopefully have the chance to read and review that one soon.
But for now, Summer Skin. Jess Gordon and her friends at Unity College have it in for the boys at the all-male, uber elite Knights College. Last year the knights held the inaugural Dragon Slayer Sweep: ‘a cash prize that went to the first knight who slept with a Unity girl.’ That girl happened to be Jess’s best friend, Farren, and her conquering knight thought it’d be fun to add insult to injury by filming the whole thing and streaming it live to his mates. First class asshats one and all. This year, the girls are out for revenge against the knights, and under no circumstances will they be ‘sitting on their lances’, because, as Jess warns every girl in college: ‘…If you do, you’re like a traitor to Farren, and every other girl in this place. And—and—well, just every girl. Full stop.’
Which makes it awkward when she finds herself attracted to Mitch. Who just so happens to be a knight. He also comes with a whole lot of baggage that Jess isn’t sure she’d want to take on, even if he weren’t blacklisted by default; after all, Jess has enough of her own shit to deal with, including a Cullenesque ex who just won’t get the message. And yet. Jess and Mitch continually find themselves thrown together, and the attraction they feel for each other becomes increasingly difficult to deny.
More than a love story, Summer Skin is about loyalty, friendship, learning to look beyond appearances and being happy in yourself before you go seeking it in someone else. It’s also a wickedly fun (and funny) undergrad romp that made me crazy nostalgic for my student days. These kinds of stories are rare in Australia (Summer Skin is set in Brisbane). Jess’s university experience isn’t the norm. Unless you’re from the country/interstate and come from money, you’re probably not living in a residential college. (For international readers, unlike in the US, most Australian universities are public rather than private and located in major cities. There’s less fuss around which uni. you go to and even those who ‘go away to uni.’ tend to rent rooms in share houses rather than stay in residential colleges—more freedom at a lower cost.) Even still, I remember, vividly, at nineteen looking up from my then untattered copy of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History at the gums and sunburnt lawns around the Flinders’ Uni. lake (a world away from the snow-dusted courtyards and ivied Lyceum of Hampden College) and thinking: where are our undergrad stories? I spent my postgrad years looking. There are some, but they are few and far between. We just don’t have the market to support a glut of these kinds of narratives. (Interestingly, the publishers are calling Summer Skin YA, but it reads as New Adult—a genre still too niche to stake a separate claim in the relatively small world of Australian fiction). Given all this, I squeed to see Eagar nod towards the preppy revelry and bacchanalia of the Bennington Brat Pack novels I so adored in my own student days, albeit with distinct Australian flare (major fist pump on p. 198 when Jess and Mitch discover their shared love of Tartt). Eagar’s characters gad about in a preppy mix of college rugby jumpers, togas and ironic op shop finds. They study hard but order their drinks in jugs, ride home in shopping trolleys, stage screaming matches in the streets, swim drunk in strangers’ pools, spit their toothpaste from dorm windows onto unsuspecting passers by, pleasure each other in lecture theatres and generally have a hell of a lot of growing up to do. It is such fun.
Sexy too. Jess is no virgin, but sex is still relatively new to her (she’s previously only slept with her ex). She and Mitch both are at a stage where they’ve figured out that they rather enjoy doing the dirty, but still have a lot of ground to cover in terms of figuring out exactly what they like. Much experimentation and foreplay ensues. And Eagar manages to make Mitch’s repeated refrain for consent, ‘Can I touch you?’ incredibly sexy (‘The words were so low she hardly heard them, scraped from the back of his throat.’). Honestly, Edward can take his patronising ‘Be safe’ and shove it where his skin don’t sparkle.
But it’s the characters who really make the story. They’re smart and funny, but also flawed. Jess has some definite princess moments, and Mitch can be a real dick at times. But they’re working on it. They read as authentic rather than variations on romantic stereotypes, and they enjoy each other rather than need each other, which is refreshing. Summer Skin is a love story, but Jess and Mitch are both busy people with full lives and plenty of friends, so the story neatly sidesteps the intense claustrophobia so common in these kinds of narratives.
Summer Skin is hands down the best YA I’ve read so far this year, and it’s going to be a tough one to beat. I mean, finally, a love story that’s smart, steamy and damn good fun.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of Summer Skin in exchange for an honest review.
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