Review: The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith

the way I used to beIn the tradition of Speak, this extraordinary debut novel shares the unforgettable story of a young woman as she struggles to find strength in the aftermath of an assault.

Eden was always good at being good. Starting high school didn’t change who she was. But the night her brother’s best friend rapes her, Eden’s world capsizes.

What was once simple, is now complex. What Eden once loved—who she once loved—she now hates. What she thought she knew to be true, is now lies. Nothing makes sense anymore, and she knows she’s supposed to tell someone what happened but she can’t. So she buries it instead. And she buries the way she used to be.

Told in four parts—freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year—this provocative debut reveals the deep cuts of trauma. But it also demonstrates one young woman’s strength as she navigates the disappointment and unbearable pains of adolescence, of first love and first heartbreak, of friendships broken and rebuilt, and while learning to embrace a power of survival she never knew she had hidden within her heart.

I’ve struggled with this one. Not because it’s never easy to read about sexual assault, whether it is fictional or real-life. Not because it’s a horrible book – quite the opposite, actually, as I found it extremely compelling. Still, I struggled to write this review, because when it isn’t you and you read about something terrible happening to someone and all you can do is watch as they descend into their own personal hell, you feel helpless. In fiction, as with real life, we are bystanders; as such, we inevitably form opinions, develop feelings and have an emotional response in one form or another. The Way I Used to Be echoes all of those stages, leaving you exhausted and emotionally spent.

Perhaps I’ve struggled to write this because I’ve known young women like Eden – bright, personable, engaging – who have shifted and become sullen, withdrawn, hurtful to themselves and to other, and I’ve wondered what was happening. Now I wonder if I wasn’t asking the right questions. It’s the point that echoed in my head the whole time I read this book: Why isn’t anyone asking her what happened? Why isn’t anyone seeing her? Then I remembered that I probably hadn’t really seen the real person behind the hurt either, and that was a painful reminder that none of us are as cognizant as we would like to believe.

I struggled because Eden’s process affected her long-term. I loved how the narrative spread over her entire high school career, because powerful events (positive and negative) affect you at a profound level, and the ripples continue for years. I found that the narrative was uneven in timing and spacing, but that was logical. Certain times in our lives go by in a blur, while other periods seem to last forever, and I thought that Amber Smith did a wonderful job of writing that for Eden. I also liked that there are certain things that remain a mystery for us, because sometimes people don’t want to share the whole story.

I wanted more for Eden, but I also knew that this is who Eden had to be in order to work through the process of what had happened and to come out the other side. I appreciated that the end of the book wasn’t a full vindication, and that Eden wasn’t “cured” by being with another boy. She had to figure things out for herself, and to take advantage of the opportunities to come forward and to heal. I’m all for finding support, but sometimes that support has to come from within before you can accept help from others.

Make no mistake, this book goes deep and dark and to places that will leave most readers feeling more than uncomfortable. Some readers may think that they would respond differently, while still others may think that Eden is acting in extremes; all I can say is that every person will react to assault (physical, emotional, or otherwise) in a different way, and that there is no “right” way to behave. We would all like to think that we would be able to come forward, but when circumstances conspire against you, do you really think that you could?

Thought provoking, emotionally draining and difficult, The Way I Used to Be is an excellent addition to an already stellar line up of compelling books that consider the after-effects of assault. I appreciate that the Smith doesn’t shy away from the pain of such an assault in her writing, but that the back of the book provides comfort and support options for those who are in this situation in real life. I’ll be thinking about this one for a while.

The Way I Used to Be is published by Margaret K. McElderry Books and a copy was provided by Simon & Schuster Canada in exchange for an honest review. It is available for purchase now from your favourite online, in-store and independent booksellers. ISBN: 9781481449359, 384 pages.