Remember being a teenager? Remember that all too dismissive word “angst” and the feeling that all these things you’re going through are much bigger and much more significant than adults give you credit for? Suzanne Sutherland’s debut YA novel When We Were Good plunges the reader right into that angst. I don’t know how I would have reacted to the book as a teenager, but as an adult, it did bring back memories of how it is to view the world as a teen. And in a literary landscape where teenage characters are either Joss Whedon sophisticated wits (think of John Green’s teens) or forced by dystopian societies to grow up too soon (Katniss Everdeen and her many succeeding iterations), there’s something refreshing about an author who decides to show teenage angst straight up. Protagonist Katherine Boatman is flawed, horribly confused, and desperate to “be good” without fully understanding what that means.
It takes a lot of skill to pull such a character off without letting her mess of emotions turn the story itself into an emotional mess, and unfortunately first time novelist Suzanne Sutherland hasn’t mastered it quite yet. There’s a lot going on in the novel, and a lot more that the author tries to do, and the result isn’t as tight as it could have been. That being said, Sutherland’s sense of characterization is strong — Katherine comes off troubled and sympathetic rather than melodramatic, and straight edge loud mouth Marie, who admittedly does get annoying at times, actually does sound real rather than a caricature.
This strength is sometimes overshadowed by an overabundance of detail and attempt at verisimilitude. In a scene for example where Katherine cries while grocery shopping, one can almost hear the creative writing professor advise to “show, not tell.” Yet after a couple pages of the physical symptoms leading up to the actual act of crying, I would have preferred the single line: The avocados reminded Katherine of her grandmother and made her cry.
Similarly, many conversations between characters consist of information unnecessary to the plot, and awkward in a way that feels real, but adds nothing to character development. Again, there is the basic creative writing tenet to capture “real” conversation — to be fair, the dialogue does mimic conversations we hear on between teenagers on the bus. However, for conversations on a page, I would have preferred more polish.
Toronto is very much a character in this story. Katherine’s exploration of the indie music scene takes her around the city, and Sutherland takes the reader with her, naming real Toronto streets and landmarks. The Bloor Viaduct, in particular the “Luminous Veil” suicide barrier becomes a potent metaphor for Katherine’s grief. The author hammers home the point a bit too much for the image to keep its resonance, but again, one remembers the overpowering emotion of teenage life, and certainly my teenage self probably would have latched on to that symbol as much as Katherine did.
LGBTQ stories in YA are becoming more mainstream, though still fairly rare. Even rarer, at least from my own personal reading experience, is having a straight edge character — one who stays away from alcohol and drugs and genuinely believes that’s the cool way to live. (or as kids today are more likely to say: that’s the sick way to live) In Marie, Sutherland creates an unapologetically lesbian straight edge love interest. I wish Marie had been given more nuance, and that the development of her relationship with the (sexually confused for most of the novel) Katherine was less abrupt. Still, Sutherland does make a statement by glamourizing the straight edge lifestyle, and one that invites discussion.
When We Were Good is Sutherland’s first novel, and while this does show in her writing, the novel also touches on some really important issues. What does it mean to “be good”? How can a fifty dollar bill be enough to honour a beloved grandmother’s life? How can a teenage girl deal with so many things going on, without allowing herself to be pulled under? Sutherland’s novel explores the overwhelmingly emotional nature of the teen years, as well as its amazing potential to discover new interests and new ways of viewing the world.
Thank you to the author for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.