Friday, February 15, 2013

Book Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is the first epic gay young adult novel I've ever read. This is a sweeping, beautiful novel, written with great care and honesty and passion. It reads like a big, sweeping John Steinbeck novel—except instead of writing about an Oklahoma family traveling to California, he's writing about a teenage lesbian in rural Montana. At nearly 500 pages, with pages printed in smaller font than usual, no less, this is not a cute little love story you read one day and forget the next. This is the kind of book you get lost in, for long hours at a time. It's really quite something.

I've been eyeing the book for a while now. I tried to reserve it at the library for about three months straight, but it was checked out every single time. When the book (deservedly) was nominated for William C. Morris award, I decided to not be so cheap for once, and bought a copy on Amazon. The more high quality gay young adult reads I can find, the better. Why? Well, I love reading them, first of all. But I'm writing them, too. As a gay author, and as a young adult author, I have yet to write a novel that doesn't include some kind of gay character or subplot, and last summer I wrote my first YA novel with a gay protagonist. Cut to this year, when I'm working on not one but two more novels about gay protagonists. I feel like I'm finally finding my voice, and reading Danforth's book has further inspired me to be better, and try to put as much of myself in the main character as I can.

First, can I note how beautiful the cover is? It's simple but elegant, and is a picture that perfectly embodies the curious Cameron. You open to the first page, and you might find yourself a little daunted by the novel's length, but don't fret: just let Danforth's beautiful prose draw you in. The book is split into three parts. The first and shortest part, introduces us to Cameron when she's in middle school, and when she first starts exploring her sexuality with a friend named Irene. She's also trying to come to terms with her parents' sudden deaths. The second part of the novel — easily my favorite — concerns Cameron's escapades in high school, where she starts a secret relationship with a girl named Coley, who may or may not be gay. The third part, which really swings the whole novel in a different direction, brings Cameron to a de-gaying camp of sorts, when her religious Aunt Ruth discovers the truth about her. Cameron first is disgusted with the religious institution, but settles in when she makes a group of friends, all of whom want out for good.

The book has the occasional mixed media blended in with the prose, one of the most memorable being the pamphlet that goes with the God's Promise program. Here's its motto: "The opposite of the sin of homosexuality is not heterosexuality: it is holiness." Wow. I've heard that these programs still exist even today, but I think Danforth was smart in setting the novel in the early 1990's, when more across-the-board acceptance of gays and lesbian was still years away. The novel I wrote last summer concerns a teenage girl, in the 1990's, whose father discovers she's gay and tries to get her to a camp just like God's Promise. Reading Danforth's book was a strange experience for me in some ways because it was like seeing an alternate take on my own character's universe. Such a coincidence only enhanced the reading experience of this book for me, not hindered it.

I loved so much about The Miseducation of Cameron Post. I loved Cameron's love for movies, and how the gay films of the 80's and early 90's helped educate her in a way to how to properly be with another girl. (The section with Cameron watching The Hunger  is particularly great.) The films she talks about also did a great job setting the time period. I was between seven and nine years old when much of this book takes place, and Danforth captures the period just right (oh, how I miss those VHS tapes). I loved Danforth's descriptions, especially of Cameron's romantic entanglements. I'm a gay male and by the end of this book, I wanted to run out there and find a girl to kiss. Danforth writes kissing so sexy and real, it makes your heart beat faster. I liked the unpredictable twists and turns the story takes, leading Cameron into the lives of various girls (and men!) you might not expect. Also, I appreciated the honesty throughout. And the sometimes explicit prose. This is one of the most adult young adult novels I've ever read, with frank sexuality, profanity, the works. But I'd certainly recommend it to the more mature of young teenagers, especially those who are questioning and need a coming-of-age story like this one. I know during my troubled high school years, a book like The Miseducation of Cameron Post would have done wonders for me, even though it's about a girl, instead of a boy.

I found my interest dwindling a little bit in the last third, partly because I was so involved in the Cameron and Coley relationship that the section on God's Promise at times almost felt like the makings of a different novel. And Danforth at times goes a bit overboard with giant block paragraphs, which sometimes act as information overload to the reader. I think if the book had been edited down a little, even just by 40 or 50 pages, the novel would have really soared. But I found The Miseducation of Cameron Post to be a tremendous reading experience, easily one of the most stunning debut novels I've read in a long time, certainly since John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back, from last year. It's important to promote work of this high quality, of this difficult subject matter, of this intelligence and imagination. Emily Danforth is an author to watch, and I can't wait to see what she does next. If you're looking for a great coming-of-age novel, one of the best I've seen in years, check out The Miseducation of Cameron Post. You won't be disappointed!

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