Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar

A review by Nalini Haynes

Jess is hiding from her stalker ex-boyfriend while encouraging all the girls in Unity, her residential college, to entrap Knights (boys from an all-male misogynist residential college) to give them a makeover. The best makeover wins.

Last year, Jess’s friend Farren had sex with a Knight; he filmed it and someone uploaded it. He won a competition to be the first Knight to have sex with a Unity girl after the orientation-week toga party. So revenge must be had.

Jess invades the Knights to steal a jersey (their uniform) as a trophy. That’s when she meets Mitch, a typical Knight. So, on toga party night, she takes him up to her room, gets naked and touchy with him then handcuffs him to his chair to make him over. She didn’t win the jersey but she won an enemy. A frenemy? What do you call a fuck buddy when you don’t actually insert tab A into slot B? That.

The only problem is that Mitch is emotionally unavailable and as changeable as the weather in distant Melbourne. And Jess is still evading Brendan, her ex…

I feel somewhat ambivalent about Summer Skin because, at first, it appeared Jess had traded one abusive boyfriend for another. I’m also not a fan of the “she healed me now we’re together” trope because it encourages victims to stay with their partners in the hope they’ll change.

Jess is a young woman with a healthy libido who’s trying to come to terms with being a woman in a society that calls you a slut if you have sex and a tease if you don’t. This rocks. However, there are scenes — like one in the library where Jess is carving letters into a desk — that feel forced. The end of the scene conveys an excellent message but the lead-up feels artificial.

The detailed intimate touching scenes early in the novel build expectations of hot sexytimes later like in Nalini Singh’s novels, but, as Jess and Mitch get more involved, sex scenes are cut short or omitted altogether.

Jess and her friends make it clear that the stalker ex is responsible for his behavior, not Jess, and that Jess’s only mistake was staying with him as long as she did. I wish I’d had this book when I was 16; when I dumped my ex, I might have held out against my mother, my ex and his friends bullying me into getting back with him after he’d already demonstrated his violent nature (including breaking 3 of my teeth). Summer Skin is a must-read for this alone: girls, when your guy is a douche, particularly a violent douche, RUN. DON’T LOOK BACK, GET OUT OF THERE.

Side characters, including the protagonists’ friends, are two-dimensional clichés. For example, we’re told Leanne is a sociopath then the narrative leads us to believe it. Allie is an instagram queen who, apparently, doesn’t have problems when she posts a naked selfie. She’s also a passive-aggressive social media–ite: when she’s not happy, instead of talking to someone, she posts photos to manipulate them. Farren is supposed to be Jess’s best friend but we wouldn’t know without being told. I got a Friends vibe: the characters are caricatures so people can identify with them or laugh at them.

Sequences of scenes show the girls having a showdown with some builders because what woman hasn’t been sexually harassed walking past a building site? This is fun and had me cackling, as did other lines throughout the story. My partner informed me that my laughter was evil.

Time jumps in the story are distracting. I read past a dinkus or chapter heading to find, some paragraphs down or on the next page, that weeks or months lapsed since the previous scene. A quick info dump brought me up to speed. Eventually I expected time lapses — then a new chapter heralded more of the same scene. I wouldn’t have been jolted out of the story if the exposition was sequential.

These time lapses are during periods that Jess and Mitch don’t see each other. This implies Jess’s life is on hold without Mitch, which I’m sure isn’t intentional. I would have liked to see the girl stuff — like the developing relationship with the builders — be ‘girl stuff’ during those periods Mitch is absent. Giving Jess a life without Mitch would make her a stronger woman instead of just being a girl who’s waiting for her man.

Overall, Summer Skin is a good read and highly recommended to people from high school upwards. It’s a must-read for Young Adults, particularly young women; I wish I’d read it when I was 16.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
ISBN: 9781925266924
Format: paperback, 352 pages
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Summer Skin — The title and author name are overlaid on a black and white image of a young woman poking out her tongue. Outside the words, the cover is hot pink.