Awkward in Our Own Skin
Camp Utopia and the Forgiveness Diet introduces us to sixteen-year-old Bethany Stern. Bethany’s goals are simple: Attract the notice of her childhood best friend, TJ, and lose enough weight to avoid a summer-long sentence at Camp Utopia, Northern California’s premier weight loss program. Housed at California’s University of the Pacifica, Camp Utopia is far from the sunny vacation Bethany envisioned.
Albuquerque author Jenny Ruden writes in a warm, humorous style. Bethany is instantly relatable, and reading Camp Utopia was like sitting down to coffee with a bunch of friends. We all have a bit of Bethany in us—awkward in our own skin and yearning for something better.
Camp Utopia and the Forgiveness Diet reads very much like a road-trip novel, for all that the story is confined to one college campus. As she bounces from one mishap to the next, Bethany is forced to confront some hard truths about her life. From her too-perfect sister to her deadbeat dad, she begins to realize that being human means having flaws, and that running away from your problems isn’t always the best option.
The story is by turns slapstick and poignant. Bethany’s wry take on her situation had me laughing, while her emotional confrontation with her father caused me to tear up. Ruden’s skill lies in the immediacy of her prose, and her deft hand at characterization. I was fully engaged by Bethany’s journey of self-discovery, and seeing her grow into a stronger person was a joy. Similarly, the supporting characters were lively, distinct individuals with their own challenges.
In fact, characterization is where Ruden excels. Her teenagers are real people, not cardboard cutouts. Bethany and her friends are smart but fallible. Too often, YA lit swings from one side of the spectrum to the other; either the teens are reckless thrill seekers, or they’re wise beyond their years. I was pleased to note that Ruden strikes a solid balance between the two extremes. While Bethany makes some questionable decisions (attending a nude beach party with an inadvertently stoned friend, for example), she also knows when she’s in over her head.
In addition, Ruden takes pains to create a multicultural cast For example, as an Albuquerque resident, I was pleased to note the inclusion of supporting characters Gabe and Liliana Delgado. The brother-sister duo seemed as if they could be my neighbors. Ruden neatly avoids lazy stereotypes with her characters by giving each individual a goal unique to their personality.
Reading Camp Utopia was like sitting down for coffee with a group of friends; warm, cozy, and ultimately satisfying. I look forward to reading more of Ruden’s work.