Title: The Way I Used to Be (2016)
Author: Amber Smith
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Extent: 384 pages
Release Date: March 22, 2016
Eden was always good at being good. Band geek. Book nerd. Starting high school didn’t change that.
But the night her brother’s best friend rapes her, Eden’s whole world capsizes. What was once simple, is now complex. What Eden once loved—who she once loved—she now hates. What she believed was the truth, now lies. Nothing makes sense anymore, and she’s never felt so alone in her life. 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.
The Way I Used to Be is about the four years after Eden, our main character, then fourteen years old, was raped by her brother’s best friend. The book opens when this very thing was happening, although not too graphically, and dives right into the aftermath. When I first started reading, I thought I was going to be in for a really intense, surreal ride, but as it turns out, this was only sometimes true.
This book is broken down into four parts (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior), which theoretically moves the story timeline really fast but in reality ends up fast-forwarding time, breezing through, and glossing over the nitty-gritty. As this was a story told over four years, the plot also had tons of subplots, many of which would get lost and were left hanging by Smith. For example, Eden would be worrying about Issue A or Character B in her freshman year, but we never get to hear what comes out of it — it was just never mentioned again.
Essentially, many important character and plot development were lost because of this time-skip — we only get to see that things are a certain way, not why or how. For example, in one scene, Eden suddenly refers to her parents by their names, not by ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’, and I had to read back a little just because I wasn’t sure if these were new characters introduced. We never found out why this happened or how their relationship deteriorated so much over the years.
Just as random subplots surface and sink, random characters also pop in and pop out. We get to see the result, not the journey — except with stories like this, what’s important is the journey, so this book did feel like a major lost opportunity at times in terms of the plot.
Whatever he thinks that I am, I’m not. And whatever he thinks my body is, it isn’t. My body is a torture chamber. It’s a fucking crime scene. Hideous things have happened here, it’s nothing to talk about, nothing to comment on, not out loud. Not ever.
Now, I haven’t read a lot of books dealing with sexual assault so I can’t comment much on it, but Eden is one of the most messed-up protagonists I’ve ever read about. Ever since her rape, she became filled with self-hatred and rage — she became really nasty, really crude, and honestly really mean to people who probably didn’t deserve it. To cope with what she went through, she decided to take on a whole new identity. If before she was a geek, a nerd, a good girl, now she’s the complete opposite: she smokes, she takes drugs, she sneaks out, she sleeps around…
I didn’t personally like Eden, but I was invested in her journey. I wanted her to be well. I wanted her to take care of herself, and to do right by herself. Unfortunately none of these things happened, because The Way I Used to Be focused so much on dragging Eden into a downward spiral. With every part of the book, Eden just got more and more self-destructive. I can’t say that I like this or that I would be jumping to push this message to younger readers.
As the girl closes her eyes, she was thinking of him. Thinking that maybe he was thinking of her, too. But he wasn’t thinking of her in that way. He was holding her in the palm of his hand, wrapping her around his fingers, one at a time, twisting and molding and bending her brain.
Unfortunately, most other characters also lacked development and were presented as very one-dimensional. We only got to see them from Eden’s eyes, true, but Eden was so wrapped up in her own path to destruction that everything else felt secondary. I didn’t get a good sense of her relationship with anyone else — not her parents, not her brother, not her best friend, and certainly not the myriad of (sometimes nameless) guys she sleeps with.
There is a bit of romance in this book, but it wasn’t really the central theme at all. This is a good thing, because frankly speaking Eden was really quite nasty and probably had to do lots of self-reflection and self-improvement before she could have a healthy, productive romantic relationship. Whatever bits were there I enjoyed, however, simply because the love interest is a really decent guy, and we really need more of those in YA fiction. 😛
Smith’s writing style was overall alright — great at some places, but generally just alright. Her writing truly shone only during very intense, slow-motion scenes, for example when the rape was happening or when Eden finally told her brother about it. These scenes are where the book really stole my attention and made me feel, which is why I ended up giving it three stars instead of lower — except unfortunately there were also very few and far in between. The first two chapters and the last two chapters kept me wholly engrossed and even a bit emotional, but the middle was overall quite flat.
All these maybes swimming around in my head make me think that ‘maybe’ could just be another word for hope.
The Way I Used to Be ended quite abruptly, and in my opinion just before things were going to get interesting. There were so many questions left unanswered, so many subplots left hanging, so many characters whose fate are left in the dark. Overall, though, I’d say that this was a worthwhile read — emotional and raw, though the execution was ultimately let down by the narrative structure.