Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Book Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth is a memoir-style novel about a teenage girl growing up in small town, conservative America in the 1980s. It's very good, and it's nice to see something literary added to the pool of coming of age lesbian fiction, but it won't be everyone's cup of tea.

It wasn't quite what I was expecting. What I was expecting was a young adult book, of some flavour of the genre. What I got was a book twice as big as I expected, that read a lot like a memoir, and mostly used much bigger words than the typical YA book. And had an awful lot of depressing religious conservatism in it, hemming our main character around.

As I said, it reads very much like a memoir, though I should clarify that it isn't, and many bits are different - Emily Danforth was never orphaned, for example (though I suspect it draws very heavily on the author's childhood and hometown). But in the adult style of writing, that doesn't change as Cameron ages, the complete focus on Cameron, and things that affect Cameron (everything is wholly from her perspective and she doesn't bother to share events that don't directly affect her), and the somewhat disjointed narrative arc retelling only the defining moments of her life (jumping from first kiss, to first girlfriend, to first love, followed by discovery and punishment) all read like a memoir. This is not a bad thing, but it isn't necessarily everyone's cup of tea, and it took me a while to adjust my expectations.

The first half follows her three first loves, in increasing length. From her childhood soulmate, who she kisses, then avoids after her parents die, to the more worldly lesbian girlfriend from her annual swim meet - to her first major crush at 15 (or so), the all around perfect, and almost perfectly straight, Coley.

Her first kiss is with Irene, her childhood best friend and soulmate, but she breaks off their first mutual tentative steps when her parents die without explanation. Irene fades out of the story, and occasionally turns up again to wave the tantalising possibility of closure, but they never really become close again.

Her next kiss is with an older girl at the annual swim meet, a friend who becomes sort of more, but it's mostly for fun. This girl becomes a penpal and a mentor to Cameron, from her wordly and more gay friendly city life, sending her stories of her sexual escapades, videos, and generally acting as the liberated, slightly stereotypical contrast to Cameron's oppressive small town life. She becomes a constant background character, but they never really meet up again, and, while she opens Cameron's eyes to the world away from home, Cameron does tire of her urge to show off.

And finally, there's Coley. Coley's an all around nice girl, a smart yet practical and pretty dream of a farm girl in a town that idolises farming and cowboys. Her and Cameron become good friends, a relationship made complicated for Cameron by her enormous crush on Coley, and by Coley being all around 'good'. Eventually, finally, Coley's boyfriend is out of town and Coley suddenly hints that hey, she's possibly interested back? Which kicks off the shortest, happiest period of Cameron's life, complete with an actual sex scene. Unfortunately, it all goes bad, when they're interrupted, and then as her life is brought crashing down by Coley's Christian Guilt and everyone around her reels in horror at the Lesbian unveiled in their midst.

The second half, in which Cameron is sent to a 'cure the gayness' school, is much more of a cohesive, fast paced storyline, and could even be a different book, or a sequel. Here she finds actual friends of equally suspect sexual and gender identity (such as Adam, who is winkte - two souled and sort of bi-gendered, and the only non-white person I can think of in the book), plays mindgames with the counsellors, uses the time she is trapped there to figure herself out a bit, is frightened and infuriated and bewildered by the school's ethos and program, and finally plans her escape with her friends. It's much more about her doing something, in a defined time frame, than an open ended discovery of herself.

While it was well written, apart from the initial jumpiness, and our main character and her love interests were captivating, the ever present lurking horror of religious conservative close mindedness really ruined it for me. Sure, it's realistic. But it was constantly there, spoiling almost every potentially romantic encounter, and worse - I couldn't just segue into suspension of disbelief mode, in which our Bold Heroine must hide from and fight the system, because not only were some of the worst offenders genuinely caring people, but I knew it could have been real. Most of the second half was spent with my mind veering between 'okay, this is how it is' and 'HOW CAN YOU SAY THAT? HOW DARE YOU! THESE PEOPLE ARE CRAZY!'. The latter rather interfered with my ability to concentrate on what was happening.

And the ending, while it tied in with the themes of closure and loss and growing up, cut off quite suddenly. It may have been meant to signify that beyond that was growing up into adulthood (rather than out of childhood), but I was left wondering if they made it, if they were caught, if they stayed together, if they had the sense to contact the (obviously lesbian) friend of Cameron's mother, or if they tried to strike out alone. I hate stories that just cut off without winding down and answering all the questions.

Oh, and delightfully, it has had all the editing and spelling issues proofread right out of it.

This isn't the usual in depth review; there's a splendid long analysis from a guest reviewer over here. I didn't want to get repetitive, so I'm mostly sharing my personal impressions and side stepping the long discussions for a quick summary and to try and give you an idea of whether you'd like the book. To be clear, I wrote this review before I was sent the other review, so we came to our conclusions entirely separately.

This seems like a great time to point out the legislation currently being proposed in California: Protect youth from being forced into ex-gay therapy: SB1172, proposed by the California State Legislature to ban the use of SOCE (Sexual Orientation Change Efforts) with minors. There's a petition in support of it here.

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