Review: The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith

Hello everyone, and welcome back.

Some time after reading Exit, Pursued by a Bear, I committed myself to eventually reading a lot more books about the subject of sexual assault, since I wanted to have a sense of what I’d feel comfortable recommending on the topic. Last year, I read All the Rage (not reviewed, but one of my best fall reads), The Female of the Species (also one of my best of the year), and What We Saw. This time around, I picked up The Way I Used to Be.

The Way I Used to Be

(And this is a content warning that I’m going to talk about sexual assault in this post, although not graphically, and that if you read those books, that content is contained in them, sometimes graphically.)

It’s difficult to qualify these types of books, in some ways, because I haven’t read one yet that doesn’t cover sexual assault and rape in a different and important way. Exit, Pursued by a Bear is about someone who actually has an excellent support network, the kind of book meant to inspire hope, even after something incredibly bleak. All the Rage is about the frustration of not being believed, about living with the hostility of the people who see you as a liar. The Female of the Species is about rape culture generally, but also about how difficult it is to work past the aftermath of assault. (It’s also about murdering rapists, so it’s pretty dark.) What We Saw is also about rape culture and the way that others enable awful behaviours.

These books are different in quality, for sure. Some are just more compelling than others, either in the perspective they choose to take, the amount of time they devote to character development, the subtlety of the delivery of their message, whatever. It’s difficult when I write about this subject to talk about the parts of writing as clearly as I try to for other books, which is maybe why I’ve been waiting to review a lot of these in comparison rather than as individual novels.

The subjects these books cover are important and I do feel that, when this topic is handled with compassion and a sense of responsibility, there’s always going to be someone who needs a specific book and a specific protagonist, even if I think some books are technically better-written than others. Speak is an excellent example of handling this kind of subject well, but maybe Melinda, who finds a way to vent through art, isn’t the protagonist every reader needs. Maybe they need Romy from All the Rage, who wears her makeup like armor, who creates the ritual of her nail polish to protect herself. Maybe they need What We Saw’s Kate, who wasn’t assaulted but needs to learn to challenge the assault-enabling behaviours of the men in her life, who needs to learn who to trust and who to stand up against. Teens are a multitude, and teens who need books about rape and rape culture are varied with different needs and different characters they’ll connect with.

One common thread I do find through a lot of these books is the narrative of the young woman who has been assaulted or who has been surrounded by that environment and who is having a hard time with the idea of physical intimacy. This makes intuitive sense; in a book about rape, people living with the reality of it don’t feel comfortable being physically vulnerable.

The aspect this doesn’t cover is that some survivors of sexual assault trauma actively seek sex and tend towards a different pattern of behaviour, and that’s the reality The Way I Used to Be portrays. Eden feels distrustful, distances others, puts up walls—but she also seeks out sexual encounters, needs to put them behind her meaninglessly like she needs to escape her bed, her home, the way she used to be. She doesn’t seek to make herself unnoticeable, like some, or to take vengeance, like others. She takes on a bad-girl role to try to put the trauma behind her, and she commits to it entirely.

It’s on that merit that I do think that some people will read and connect with this book in a way that they won’t with others, because this brings that unique and somewhat opposing reaction to the table. Eden is a sympathetic character who has been through something awful, but her method of dealing with it involves a lot of destructive coping mechanisms, some of which harm others. And some people will need to read that character, because some people will feel like Eden does and react the way she does, and they shouldn’t feel alone.

That said, regarding the writing of The Way I Used to Be? This book was a bit of a miss for me. It felt like it had a lot of time to develop relationships between Eden and her parents, brother, best friend, and love interest(s), but didn’t really do much but tell us what the status quo of those relationships looked like, so it was hard for it to hit home when those relationships shifted in the book. No one beyond Eden seemed to have significant character development, so I wasn’t particularly moved or surprised (or not surprised) by any of their actions. Sympathizing with Eden and wanting to know how she’d find a way through it carried me through the book, but in some ways, I wonder if that’s only because she was a (fictitious) person who went through awful trauma, not because she was a character I was particularly invested in.

For me, this was one of those books that didn’t spend enough time showing us who its characters were to earn the emotional beats when they fought, made up, fell apart, or came together. But I did feel for Eden, and maybe for someone reading this book, they’ll know exactly how she’s feeling. And for that reason, though I didn’t think this book was anything more than okay to read and messily written, it might still be very important.

So that’s my review for now, and my commitment to continue reading books on this subject because I now think I know that, although I’ll find some books to be “better books” than others, some people will need different books than others do. And I want to be able to point to which is which (and, if I find them, to the books that might be just plain harmful).

If you have any further suggestions, please leave them in the comments. And I’ll be back in my next post with actual star ratings and less heavy subjects.

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