Back When You Were Easier to Love
By Emily Wing Smith
Dutton Books, 2011. 296 pgs. Young Adult
When Joy moved to Haven, Utah, she quickly started dating Zan, who was cooler than everyone else there: he was so "above" the silly Mormon or Latter-day Saint (LDS) culture, with the Sprite drinking and Disney-movie-watching-parties and "Modest is Hottest" t-shirts, and Mormons in general, since they aren't concerned about real issues and think they're better than everyone else. In Zan, Joy finally felt like she was somebody, but when he completed his GED and took off to California to go to college, Joy's world fell apart. Now she's desperate to get "closure" (which really means she's desperate to get Zan back), and she convinces Zan's friend Noah to drive her to California, even though she can't stand, since he's king of the Soccer Lovin' Kids--so cool and handsome he can even make being a Mormon okay. They confront Zan, and Joy has to realize what that maybe she hasn’t been seeing things clearly.
I'll start of my review with a disclaimer: I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a Mormon), so maybe I'm more sensitive than a lot of readers would be. But, as a member of the group being mocked here, I also feel like I have every right to be sensitive about how my religious group is being represented.
Joy's attitude can be really hard to take: even though she is LDS, she's so disdainful towards Haven (from the library, to the school, to the people) and toward Mormon culture (she likes the belief, just not the culture), and even toward her friends. For example, she says of her best friend, “If Zan is the world’s biggest cliché, then Mattia is Haven’s biggest cliché. She’s smart but not too smart, peppy but not too peppy, pretty but not too pretty. She’ll go to Brigham Young University like forty percent of our class, she’ll major in psychology (a subject she’s been obsessed with for as long as I’ve known her), and she’ll meet the perfect recently returned missionary. They’ll get married, have 3.5 children, and get family pictures taken up the canyon every autumn. It’s so easy for people like her” (p. 51). One of the things she doesn’t like about Noah and his friends is that they won’t have girlfriends before they go on their missions—and it also bothers her that he’s nice to everyone. (Yeah, what a rotten guy, Noah.) Joy DOES come to realize that she’s been a jerk (although I would have liked to see a little bit more realization and remorse), and some of it stems from her own insecurities. However, even after she has started to have some sense of her own snobbery, she still is very stereotypical in her assumptions about people—for example, she says, “Even though Noah hasn’t told me much about his family, I can still imagine them in a silver minivan, the girls dressed up like Cinderella and Snow White, watching Aladdin on DVD” (p.239-240). Okay, maybe that’s not the worst thing to assume about a Mormon family, but still, it’s like she’s so wrapped up in her ideas of what the quaint little Mormon life is like that she doesn’t entertain the possibility that Noah’s life could be any different. (I don’t think Joy, at least on the pages, even knows if his parents are still married, or both alive, or anything. So she might want to be a little more cautious in her assumptions, even if she thinks it’s a nice one, since she’s been so badly misjudging everyone all along…). And, even with her remorse, she still can’t put aside her own ideas enough to respect Noah’s: at the end, their car breaks down in Vegas, they go to a motel and can only afford one room, and all that’s available is one with a double bed. Yeah, sleeping together is a no-no in Mormon culture, and even though Joy is certain nothing will happen (and it’s doesn’t), she still tells Noah, even though he’s clearly uncomfortable, that it’s okay for them to share a bed, which to me, especially since she has a track record of thinking she’s better than everyone around her, shows that she still thinks her ideas are better. Why can’t she just be respectful of Noah’s standards and not push the limits?
So, yes, Joy does come to realize that she’s not better than anyone and that no one is better than anyone, but I have to say, that for me, the realization might have been too little, too late. Joy’s attitude made it hard to be sympathetic, which in turn makes it hard to care what happens to her.
I don't know, maybe I'm just grumpy. Maybe I didn't read it the way the author intended (Tangent: I'm not so sure an author can say a book should be a read a certain way, since everyone comes at a book with his or her own life experiences and opinions and such; it might be too much for any author to think that everyone's just going to be able to read a book the way that he/she "intended".), but overall, I think the book made me sad: sad to see my culture and people mocked, and even with Joy's (kinda) change of heart, I didn't feel like it fully repaired the damage it did. You know what? It's okay to like Sprite, it's okay to have Disney parties rather than drug and alcohol induced parties, and there are LOTS of Mormons who care about real issues and who DON'T think they're better than everyone...and I hope readers realize that, but I'm not sure the author really conveyed that strongly enough.
So...I don't think I'll give this book a rating. Maybe I'm overly sensitive; maybe the author would think this review is a joke. I don't know. But I'm not sure I can fairly rate it, so I won't.
Not quite a 100% clean read: it says the "h" word a couple of times, and, as mentioned, Joy and Noah do end up in the same bed (although he leaves and sleeps on the floor).