Novel: The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith | Goodreads
Release Date: March 22, 2016
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderberry
A New York Times bestseller!
In 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.
The Way I Used to Be is a sobering read in plenty of ways. The most powerful part of it is that it does not, in fact, only cover a few months after the fact, but years after. It doesn’t only deal with the direct trauma. It’s not an issue book; it’s a coming-of-age.
Part of this is due to the way that Eden works — she isn’t one to confront what happened right away. She buries it, and so it ends up manifesting passive-aggressively. It spills over into other segments of her life: her relationship with her parents turns resentful (how could they not notice her entire world just changed?), her schoolwork (what’s the point of it all?), her attitude towards boys (using them and not caring about her reputation.)
There are some segments of this book that strike me in terms of realism. Parts of it are dramatic, obviously, but it doesn’t feel melodramatic. The scenes and reactions have purpose, and they subtly but gracefully display the far-reaching effects of Eden’s rape in later years. Most of it stems from her complete inability to understand how or why her world entirely flipped, and the disorientation of nothing quite being the same.
Eden can be prickly at times, and frankly a bit unlikable. From seeing who she was freshman year, however, we see that a lot of this is due to what she went through. She’s always been withdrawn, but her rape intensifies that. It’s difficult to distinguish which changes in her personality are due to her growing up vs. confronting the distressing events of her past.
The Way I Used to Be explores the line between empathy vs. apathy. In some ways, Eden becomes totally uninterested in other people. She views a lot of those closest to her as having betrayed her. How could they not notice how she changed, even if she isn’t actively showing it? She longs for someone to instinctually know without her having to verbalize it. Her hurt in that regard leads her to start using other people, especially boys, with little thought to how they could be affected. (For the record, the supporting characters are well-written, and so it’s easy to see the ripple effect Eden’s actions have — how her rape also impacts those around her.)
I always say that I don’t want to read about morally perfect characters. Part of the reason we read YA is to see the coming-of-age, the mistakes and the learning from them (but not in a preachy way either.) I liked that Eden is pretty awful to a lot of people, because she does have to confront it in complex ways. She doesn’t get a free pass, and that’s the way life works.
It’s not one person or event that “fixes” things. It’s a long, difficult process, and we get to see how Eden goes through all of it. Through friendships, breakups, family relationships, her academics slipping, her first experiences with drugs and hookups, etc,. We see a lot of questions answered in ways that bring up more questions. Where does she go from here?
The writing is pretty clear throughout. We get a distinct picture of who Eden is, and a lot of her frustrations emerge subtly. There are a few poignant moments and passages that got me — underline-worthy. The main draw is definitely the characters though. Eden made my heart ache.
The Way I Used to Be is an accurate title. There’s a clear distinction between the way her life used to be and the way it is after, although her personality contains some consistencies.
I always find myself drawn to books that change my perspective, or challenge my ideas. Broadening my horizons and understanding. Eden’s portrayals of her experience — and the way it reverberates throughout her life — are valuable. I would say it’s definitely worth looking at. If you have to love your characters, it might not be the book for you, but if you want to see flawed, human ways of coping with distress, it’s a great read.
(Also, I definitely feel the need to note that this is a strong book. It pulls no punches. It has cursing, drugs, sex, all that jazz. So keep in mind if that’s something that would upset you. It’s gritty in ways.)