Book Review: Camp Utopia and The Forgiveness Diet, Jenny Ruden (2014)

October 22nd, 2014 12:41 pm by Kelly Garbato

“Beauty settles in the flaws.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through the Goodreads First Reads program.)

Fifteen-year-old Bethany Stern’s life is a mess. She’s not-so-secretly in love with her next-door neighbor and best friend, Toby Jacobson (TJ for short), who doesn’t feel the same. An aspiring magician two years her senior, TJ is on the cusp of graduation – after which time he’ll gladly blow town (which is Baltimore, Maryland) to audition for the talent show American Envy. Her older sister Jackie is stuck in unhappy relationship with a pothead named Doug, and their mom Ellen was forced to relocate the family to a poorer area of town after her husband Richard (or “Dick,” as they derisively refer to him) walked out on them twelve years ago. Now he’s got a new wife and twin boys, and he only contacts his daughters on birthdays and holidays…if that. Bethany’s even convinced that Richard Goodman spotted her at Chuck E. Cheese – at her half-brothers’ birthday party, to which she was not invited – and purposefully ignored her because he was ashamed of her weight.

Which brings us to the titular “Camp Utopia” and “The Forgiveness Diet.” Bethany’s tried all manner of diets, with varying success; while sucking on food (but not eating it!) helped her to lose a few lbs, her new look didn’t change TJ’s feelings towards her – so she gained it all back, and then some. When her mother books her a slot (to the tune of $5000) at a “fat camp” hosted on the campus of California University of the Pacific, she makes one last-ditch effort to slim down with the newest fad diet, The Forgiveness Diet. Just write down who you forgive and what for, slip it into the forgiveness jar (or, in Bethany’s case, a discarded fast food bucket), and watch the pounds melt away. Of course, this isn’t what happens; instead, Jackie and Doug accidentally find the notes, thus creating a meltdown of epic proportions on the road trip there.

Once she’s unceremoniously discarded at Camp Utopia, Bethany’s horrified to find that she’s “the fattest person at fat camp.” As if this isn’t bad enough, she’s teamed up with overachiever Amber (“Hollywood”), who chucks a cell phone at her head at the second week’s weigh-in. After this, Bethany and fellow camper Tabitha (“Cambridge”) run away from Utopia, surviving on just their wits and the good will of summer college students. The two quickly become fugitives, as Camp Utopia ramps up their search for the young women (can you say “bad publicity”?). Her loyalties split between her new friends Tabitha and Liliana (“Santa Fe”) – not to mention Liliana’s hot older brother Gabe – and her desire to escape (but back to what?), Bethany must make a choice: confront her issues (her weight being the least of them), or continue on her path of denial and avoidance.

Camp Utopia and The Forgiveness Diet is a fun read that feels rather light but tackles some pretty weighty issues (not a pun intended). While the camp’s founders and counselors initially emphasize weight loss, by story’s end they come around to a more progressive message of healthy living, self-acceptance and –love, and finding the right weight for your own body. Tedious, repetitive exercises are abandoned in favor of a more active lifestyle which incorporates enjoyable activities into one’s everyday routine. (Bethany, for example, is surprised to find that she loves playing KO with Gabe.) The cast is wonderfully diverse; both of Bethany’s roommates are girls of color (Tabitha is black and Liliana is Native American and Latina), and Tabitha in particular plays a large role in Bethany’s story (plus we also learn more about her back story, so that’s cool). The story highlights some pretty rad examples of positive female friendships, as well as rivalries which eventually blossom into alliances. Bethany’s budding relationship with Gabe is rather sweet and adorable and fun to watch. Spoiler alert: I’m totally crushing on the boy too. Where was he when I was 15?!?

That said, Bethany is sometimes hard to like; she’s quick to anger, veers toward the melodramatic, and doesn’t always stand up for herself. I was also disappointed by her use of the r-word and its derivatives (e.g., “’tard”). Unless this was supposed to make us dislike her (the way I assume Hollywood’s use of “bitch” was supposed to curry audience disfavor), I wish Ruden would have stuck with a less offensive insult instead.

But the worst part is when Bethany “forgives” Jackie “for killing Doug’s baby.” (I couldn’t help but wonder, not without some panic, whether I’d accidentally picked up a Christian fiction book when I read that line.) While the issue is skirted around for most of the story (as are several of the subplots), eventually the a-word (“abortion”) makes an appearance: Jackie had an abortion. One she doesn’t seem to regret all that much. Pro tip, Bethany: Jackie doesn’t need your forgiveness for accessing basic health care. It wasn’t a baby in there, it was a fetus; and it didn’t belong to Doug, but was a) created by the both of them and b) tethered to her own body. If my sister wanted/needed an abortion, I’d drive her to the clinic myself, not shame her for it afterwards. Yuck.

In addition to abortion, there’s a moderate amount of swearing, a ton of nudity (including a naked, drug-fueled college party), drug use, and sexual activity stopping just short of intercourse. I didn’t think it terribly unsuitable for teenagers – it’s not what you’d call “gritty” – but my sensibilities are anything but delicate. I can imagine, though, that this is the sort of book that would be challenged in high school libraries.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Since the story takes place at a “fat camp,” fat phobia is a frequent topic of discussion/criticism. Both of Bethany’s roommates are girls of color (Tabitha is black and Liliana is Native American and Latina). Bethany begins a relationship with Liliana’s older brother, Gabe. Liliana suffers from diabetes. Bethany’s sister Jackie had an abortion.

 

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