Colourful initiatic journey of a brother and sister lost in 90s Portland

I picked up this book for the wrong reasons, but aren’t I glad that I did! Summer in the City of Roses by Michelle Ruiz Keil is a contemporary YA novel exploring family betrayal and love, anxiety, autism spectrum, LGBTQ feelings, trangender identity, family violence, prostitution, homelessness, baby blues, creativity, bohemian lifestyles and so many important and difficult subjects.

So why did I pick up this book for the wrong reasons? Well, it was all for the cover. And I will honestly say that it is a little lacking, not colourful and energetic enough for the novel inside truthfully. “Summer in the City of Roses” deserves something punchy and vibrant. Sadly, I am sure that many have probably passed the cover thinking it wasn’t for them because there is something very old fashioned and peaceful and self-assured about it. It’s a real shame, it doesn’t reflect the energy and loss and wonder and growth inside. But it immediately drew me in because it portrayed one of my all time favourite writers: George Sand, the 19th century controversial French novelist: a woman who dressed as a man to be the artist she wanted to be. See for yourselves.

I thought it was only a chance event, but it made me feel so happy – no one reads George Sand, I barely managed to convince my best friend to dip a toe. But I am so glad it wasn’t a coincidence – there is a very lovable transgender character in the book called George and even if it’s nothing more than an Easter egg for a crazy wide reader like me, it was fantastic.

So what is the book about? 

We follow Iph, a lonely girl who loves theatre and runs away from home after her father sends her too sensitive brother to boot camp. Because that’s how we make a man. The escape and search for the brother is littered in magical realism and follows loosely one of the Grimm fairytales I hadn’t known prior to reading the book: “Brother and sister”.

What did I like?

There is something very nostalgic about this work for me. I’m not sure how much it will talk to teens today (it shouldn’t go into too young hands anyway, I would recommend at least 16), but it talked to me who was a kid in the 90s and grew up in an artistic family, oh does it talk to me on so many of those levels… And the frustration of not having a way to communicate, mobile phones changed so many things. 

The fairy tale element is very interesting, I’m a sucker for it and I kept looking out for the elements of the story which I read prior to the book just for the fun of getting the references, though in no way is that necessary to get the story. 

The prose also very beautiful and I loved the sections of the book that were dedicated to the brother. Orr is a fantastic character to explore and his interaction with the world is fascinating. I loved his time with the Furies, and truthfully I would have loved to read a whole book about him. We don’t read enough characters on the spectrum and having his coping mechanisms, reflections, questioning, his perplexities at things was refreshing and insightful.  

What I was less of a fan off

Truthfully I liked Iph, the sister less. She was a little too much of the “poor little rich girl” for me, though it makes sense as her journey is about discovering how sheltered she was and gaining new appreciation for life. Luckily she contains her judging and is open minded. 

I also found the dream sequences unnecessary. The magical realism was enough for me. I liked that, it felt subtle, just a kiss of fairytale. The dream sequences felt more heavy handed, as if the writer suddenly lost her confidence in being able to breathe enough wonder into her story. The novel worked well without. But apart from those little point the book was really wonderful and I am surprised I haven’t heard more about it and that more people didn’t pick it up. 

I highly recommend it to people who enjoy initiatic journeys – those books about growing up and learning about yourself. If you liked Butterflies in November (the road trip of an Icelandic woman with a deaf 5 year old across their country) or Folklorn (the story of a scientist woman trying to decipher the mysteries of her family through the korean fairytales her mother left her) then you are sure to love Summer in the City of Roses, don’t get fooled by the YA tag. This is not for an immature audience.

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