Author: Emery Lord
Find the author: Website, Blog, Twitter, Goodreads, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr
Also by this author: The Start of Me and You, When We Collided, The Names They Gave Us, Meet Cute: Some People Are Destined to Meet.
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing USA
Publication date: April 15th 2014
After breaking up with her bad-news boyfriend, Reagan O'Neill is ready to leave her rebellious ways behind. . . and her best friend, country superstar Lilah Montgomery, is nursing a broken heart of her own. Fortunately, Lilah's 24-city tour is about to kick off, offering a perfect opportunity for a girls-only summer of break-up ballads and healing hearts. But when Matt Finch joins the tour as its opening act, his boy-next-door charm proves difficult for Reagan to resist, despite her vow to live a drama-free existence. This summer, Reagan and Lilah will navigate the ups and downs of fame and friendship as they come to see that giving your heart to the right person is always a risk worth taking. A fresh new voice in contemporary romance, Emery Lord's gorgeous writing hits all the right notes.
Open Road Summer was a library read right before BEA14 for me. It stuck with me totally – it was one of those books I just didn’t want to end, where every page there was a moment that made me suck in my breath because it was so perfect. Interestingly, I remember chatting in a line with another blogger, and discussing how she couldn’t deal with the slut-shaming. So when I came home, I started writing this review, and I realized that I needed to address this. Because while the character Reagan does slut-shame girls, there is never an instance where the book or the author condones her actions. In fact, I think that Emery Lord has taken great pains to show how much Reagan’s slut-shaming is really an instance of her own insecurities – and in her slut-shaming, she is really just beating up on herself.
Firstly, the plot. Lilah Montgomery is a household name in country music now, a singer-songwriter who is headlining her first big tour this summer. Reagan, her best friend, is coming along because she needs a break from the bad decisions that she’s made in the past few years, including getting arrested, and being with a really terrible dude. Dee (as Lilah is known to her friends) and Reagan are both suffering from broken hearts: Dee and her high school sweetheart Jimmy broke up awhile ago because he just wants to live a normal life, and she obviously doesn’t have that. Reagan is a mess but not as much because of romance – more because she knows that a lot of what she’s dealing with is from bad decisions, one of which was her ex-boyfriend.
Throughout the story, you get glimpses at what has made Reagan such a mess. The girl is hardened, someone who is deeply suspicious of people around her. Dee is probably the only person she trusts at the beginning.
Every review that I’ve read thus far has talked about Reagan and Dee’s relationship, and mine is not any different. This is female friendship done right, guys. Dee and Reagan together are hilarious and kind of unstoppable. They have adorable antics (see: zipping Reagan into a suitcase), they are kind to one another, they always know what’s going on in each other’s lives, and they pick each other up when they fall. It’s the kind of friendship that I’ve always wished I had – girls who are there for each other in an instant, and support each other even when one of them has stupid ideas.
Because their friendship is so strong, in some ways, Reagan relies on it almost too much. She doesn’t feel like she needs to branch out and have more friends. She’s got the perfect friend, why try for something else? So Reagan is hostile to other girls. She’s not someone who trusts easily.
“Ugh,” Dee groans, beating her palms against the coffee table. “She knows I wanted Matt to open for me anyway but he was dealing with some family stuff, so I didn’t want to ask. It would be so fun to have him along, but not like this—not with the pretend-boyfriend strings attached.”
I stare down at the criss-crossed leather straps of my favorite wedge sandals. We were supposed to have so much fun. Well, maybe not fun fun, but we were at least supposed to stay together the way the two weeping willows in her parents’ backyard do—standing their ground side by side, even if they’re both drooping.
Reagan is feeling a bit possessive of Dee – she’s not completely interdependent, but there is definitely some jealousy at the thought of anyone invading her friendship. And I think because it’s so great, it’s really made her distrustful of other girls, particularly because other girls don’t really treat her that well.
The memory comes barreling back to me, from three years ago. I wasn’t surprised that the school counselor called me down to her office to “check in” only a few days into freshman year. Gossip had been following me around since I was in middle school, when a gaggle of mean girls started a rumor that I was anorexic. By the time I hit a C-cup in eighth grade, they were saying that I’d gotten implants, that I was an aspiring porn star, that I was a slut. Any time I missed school for a dentist appointment, I returned to rumors that I was cutting class to fool around with a senior. I was the girl who had no mom, the girl whose dad was not so anonymously in Alcoholics Anonymous. Even the school counselor believed the rumors about me might be true. I could tell she was fishing around for information about the gossip du jour—that I’d hooked up with a teacher. I was fourteen and had only kissed two boys ever. Plus: ew. A teacher?
I sighed, shaking my head at the counselor. “Look, Mia Graziani started that rumor to deflect attention from her own problems. I don’t want to gossip, but . . . frankly, I’ve seen her throwing up in the bathroom twice this past month, so . . . either pregnancy or bulimia. Poor girl.”
It was a total lie, and I almost felt bad about it. But I hated Mia. I hated her for choosing me as the subject of her cruelty. I hated her more for bringing out the viciousness in me. This wasn’t who I wanted to be, but how many times can a dog get kicked before she bares her teeth in return?
I retreated to the girl’s bathroom as the bell rang. I went into the stall where “Reagan O’Neill is a whore” was written on the back of the door. In black Sharpie, I spelled out exactly where Mia Graziani could shove it. It wasn’t long before I heard the creak of the door and soft footsteps.
“Reagan . . .” Dee always sounds like her mom when she uses her calm voice. “C’mon. Come out.”
I complied by kicking the stall door with all my might. Dee winced at the sound of the metal door slamming against the wall and then surveyed my vandalism. She was holding the bathroom pass from the class we were both supposed to be in.
“They’re just jealous.”
“Why would they be jealous?”
“Because you’re beautiful and smart. They know it. You make them insecure.”
“Yeah, right.” I scowled, kicking the door again, though with less force this time.
Dee caught the door with one hand before it could hit the wall.
“They’re mean to you, too, you know,” I said. They called Dee “Frizz” behind her back and talked about her songwriting contract with air quotes, like they didn’t believe it was real. But it was still unkind of me—attempting to drag Dee along the low road with me. Her cheeks flinched, trying to frown, but she wouldn’t let them. Even then, Dee was strong. Not in the loud, brassy, I-am-woman way that some girls are. She was strong then the way she’s strong now, in a quiet but irrepressible way.
“Yeah, I know,” she said finally. “But my mom says the best revenge is living well, and I believe her.”
Here we see the first–and I believe the only–instance of Reagan’s slut-shaming – which happened in the past and precisely stems from other girls bullying her. I’m not saying it’s right – in fact, Reagan KNOWS it’s not right, and she “almost felt bad about it…I hated her more for bringing out the viciousness in me. This wasn’t who I wanted to be.” And to reinforce the wrongness of her actions, right after this, Dee comes in and surveys her “vandalism.” The fact that the book is calling it that is indicative of how the author – and the book – feel about what Reagan has done. And to add to that, we hear that Dee herself has been bullied – but instead of doing what Reagan does, she is “strong…in a quiet, but irrepressible way.” It’s obvious who the book agrees with here.
Does this make Reagan unlikeable? Maybe. For me, it made her all the more understandable, though. Because I’m not someone who trusts easily. I’ve been bullied in the past. And I used to manifest that bullying by lashing out at my friends and family, testing them to make sure that they really loved me. I got suspicious of any cool girl who looked too perfect, and yes, I acted out and did some things that were maybe a little dumb and a little wild.
This is what Reagan does. She is such a mess, and such a contrast of someone who hates everyone around her and someone who is so down on herself.
I was mad at my mom for abandoning us and mad at him for abandoning me emotionally. Not even Dee’s good influence could keep me from trying to hurt my parents the way they hurt me. At least that’s what my court-appointed therapist thinks, and I hate to admit that she’s probably right. I also hate to admit that she’s court-appointed.
My track record started with mouthing off in seventh grade and skipping a few study halls in eighth grade. Freshman year of high school, I flirted with senior boys and made out with them in their cars, just to feel that rush of it all. I snuck out of the house to parties, where I smoked, drank bad beer, and needed Dee to help me home. After Dee left on her first tour, I lost my virginity to a guy I barely knew, which was an experience that’s barely worth remembering.
An underage-drinking charge sent me to court last fall…My list of offenses runs long, and I’m not proud of any of them—except maybe the time I outran a cop while wearing stilettos. But things changed in April, and so did I. I’m trying to get my act together, but I can’t be someone I’m not. I still flirt with boys to get what I want, and I still crave the occasional cigarette. I’m just not as bad as I used to be.
I turn another corner, only to find even screechier girls at a merchandise counter.
Immediately after talking about her own offenses and her actions – obviously those of a girl who doesn’t have much self-esteem and is acting out, Reagan insecurely calls the girls at Dee’s concert “screechy.” This is Reagan’s defense mechanism, her way of telling herself that she is different from other girls – while they are screechy and fangirl-ish, she is different. In fact, Reagan has been told of her differences and excluded so many times that she now automatically puts herself there. She hates herself for doing things “just to feel the rush of it all,” including losing her virginity “to a guy [I] barely knew, which was an experience that’s barely worth remembering.” And yet, she is the one putting herself in the very position that other girls assigned to her – she perpetuates the same behaviors that she now slut-shames other girls for.
To me, this is a clear indicator that the thought-hatred she has throughout the narrative really stems from her hatred of herself. In the scene that most other reviews I’ve read take as the biggest example of Reagan’s slut-shaming, we see Reagan trying to fight off her own attraction to Matt Finch while seeing several girls in a bar drawn to him:
“Gotta go,” the girl says, turning back to us. “Don’t wanna miss Matt Finch! Yum.”
As she walks away, I sneer at her. Idiot. Matt’s a human being, not an apple pie….There’s a group of girls already camped out in front of the small stage space, and more girls are gravitating toward it by the minute. They all look like they’ve tried extra hard tonight, like they’re desperate to get with Matt Finch for One Night Only. Best of luck, bitches….
The squeals rise up while girls push to find a spot near the stage. They’re clapping as best they can with drinks in hand, and Matt ducks onstage from behind the thick navy curtain. Dee lets out an impressive wolf whistle, which sets off the whole crowd even louder. I wish all these skanks would just sit down so I could see. Repositioning my chair, I nearly strain my back trying to see past a tall blond in unnecessarily high heels….
I’m not putting in the entire scene, but rest assured, there’s more of Reagan’s attitude. And more of her distancing herself from those girls, not only because she doesn’t want to admit to liking Matt, but also because Reagan sees herself as Other to the girls here. She places herself in a position where she is different from other girls, and thus, she is alone, separate, but also safe from any position where she might end up with her heart on her sleeve.
But note her behavior after the show:
Out of the corner of my eye, I see him ducking back into the bar, trying to make his way toward us. A group of doting bimbos sidelines him immediately, asking for pictures with cell phones and crappy point-and-shoot cameras. He smiles gamely as the flashes go off, girls wrapping their arms around him, and my gag reflex trills in my throat. Glancing around to make sure no one’s watching, I lean over toward the table, subtly adjusting my push-up bra.
“Hey, guys.” He looks relieved, his whole body relaxing once he’s in our presence. Up close, his shirt looks damp with sweat, and, on anyone else, this would be disgusting. Instead, on Matt, I find it inexplicably sexy, and I force my eyes away.
“You were wonderful,” Dee says, and my brain races to find a compliment. I mean, what am I supposed to say? That song makes me feel like I already know you completely, like we existed together in a former life. Like you get me, without even knowing me. Like maybe I need to get you alone to find out how many other ways you can make me feel.
“It was good.” I flash him the hint of a smile. The more I see girls fawning over him, the less I want to be one of them.
Despite the fact that Reagan sees herself as Other to the girls at the bar, her actions speak louder than her words. She is adjusting her push-up bra so that she can get an edge over the other girls, thus, placing herself squarely in the group of girls trying to impress Matt. The more she slut-shames other girls, the more she acts like one of those girls.
“I don’t like any girl who bites her lip in an attempt to look cute and innocent,” she narrates. And yet, earlier on in the book, as they are getting ready to go to the very same show, Reagan also discusses her own attempts to look a certain way for Matt:
I feel almost nervous, not quite as in control as I’d like to be. Something about Matt puts me off guard, and I don’t like it. As I was picking out something to wear, I caught myself worrying that I’d look like I tried too hard. I decided on a black tank-top dress, which is tight and cotton and simple, very I-just-threw-this-on. The necklace gives it a more feminine touch. Still, I lean forward in the mirror, adjusting my bra for maximum cleavage.
And isn’t that eerily similar to what she’s internally shaming the other girl for? Moreover, the fact that Reagan doesn’t often voice her slut-shaming thoughts out loud also proves how timid Reagan’s slut-shaming is. She’s internalized an idea of What Sluts Wear and What Sluts Do. And when she goes on to mention her own skimpy clothing, her own actions to become the very girls she is shaming.
Her choice of clothing is not her “owning” that persona. It’s a way of reminding herself that she should be shamed as well. She’s broken, she’s a mess, and her outward appearance and her hostile thoughts reflect that.
I’ve gone on a long time about this, but I want to be clear. I think the author was deliberately showing us how girls run themselves down, how low self-esteem happens, and how bad decisions come from those negative thought patterns. We are ABSOLUTELY supposed to think that Reagan’s slut-shaming is not okay, and that her opinions about people are not always correct, and tinged by her own bad experiences. And that’s why, when she meets Matt Finch, she is terrified. He sees right through her, he’s a good boy, he’s everything that she’s not supposed to deserve as a “slut.”
“Besides, Matt Finch, classifiable good boy, would never go for a girl like me. Of course he wouldn’t,” Reagan says. And yet he wants her. And the things he likes about her are all the things that she’s tried to bury within herself – the vulnerable parts that make her a great photographer and a great friend and a girl who is way more hurt and broken that she wants to admit.
“God,” he mutters. “Most girls love it when I write them a song.”
“Well, I’m not most girls,” I snap at him.
“No shit!” His voice rises into a frustrated laugh. “That’s why I want you to stop being like this and just go out with me!”
What’s fascinating about this scene is that while Reagan does not think of herself as something special, Matt has, in fact, singled her out as the one girl who isn’t “most girls.” He believes that her differences are real and good, while Reagan only sees them as weapons or more evidence of her own slut identity.
My appearance and collection of tiny clothes are like flypaper, drawing in good boys and bad boys, boys younger than me and men old enough to be my father. Their reactions make it easier to tell the difference between the harmless guys and the ones who are venomous—the ones who will make it sting. But sometimes they fool me.
What’s my point here? Not only does Open Road Summer not condone slut-shaming, but, in fact, it celebrates strong, complex, flawed characters in a way that is more feminist than any I’ve read in a long while. I’ve now read ORS four times, and each time, I felt an amazing connection with the main character and the complexity of the issues they were dealing with. Jamie at The Perpetual Page-Turner did a post earlier this year on whether it’s the author’s job to write realism, or to write something that really promotes a good way of thinking. In my opinion, Emery Lord has brilliantly done both – it just takes a little unpacking to see it.
What do you think of the slut-shaming issue in Open Road Summer? Do you think that the slut-shaming was inappropriate or true-to-life? Do you agree with me that even though Reagan did have some truly terrible thoughts about girls, it was clear that the author and the book did not condone it? Is it the author’s job to be truthful or to set an example? Hit the comments and let me know!
If you’ve read this far, you deserve a giveaway! Same as yesterday’s, Bloomsbury is generously providing signed, personalized copies of Open Road Summer and The Start of Me and You to a lucky US/CAN reader (international friends, head to yesterday’s post to enter). Good luck!