Saturday, July 19, 2014

Book Review: "What It Was Like" by Peter Seth

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

"It's really a very simple story. What happened was this: I met this girl and did a very stupid thing. I fell in love. Hard. I know that to some people that makes me an idiot and a loser. What can I say? They're right. I did some extremely foolish things; I'm the first to say it. And they've left me in jail and alone."

The narrator of Peter Seth's What It Was Like grew up in the late 1960s on Long Island, and seemed to have everything. He was smart, planning to attend Columbia University, and the summer before college took a job as a counselor at Camp Mooncliff, a summer camp in upstate New York. He took the job to earn some money before college, and figured it would be a relatively easy job, better than staying home and working for a rich relative or in the furniture store where his father worked.

What he didn't plan for was meeting the gorgeous yet troubled Rachel Prince, a CIT (counselor-in-training) at the camp who was related to the camp's owners. Over her years at Mooncliff Rachel had developed quite a reputation for teasing and using boys, then discarding them when she got bored. Despite many of his fellow counselors' warnings, he falls hard for her, and she for him. It isn't long before the two are breaking as many camp rules as possible in order to see other as frequently as they can, which doesn't sit well with those in charge, and they do all they can to keep the two apart.

Although his feelings for Rachel are quite strong, he is somewhat put off by the mania of her emotions. With her parents in the midst of an ugly divorce, and her desire not to go to college directly after she graduates from high school, Rachel has tremendous anxiety about her relationship with her mother and her new live-in boyfriend, and worries whether they will try to keep Rachel from seeing the love of her life after the summer ends.

What It Was Like is the story of the intensity of young love that borders on obsession, and how we often suspend logic and don't heed the warnings and advice of others when we're in the midst of that type of love. As we learn early on in the book, the narrator's feelings for Rachel end up embroiling him in trouble he never planned on, and severely alters the course of his life. This book is apparently "the true story" the narrator writes while in prison, as he attests that the real story was never disclosed at his trial.

I thought at first this book had tremendous promise. I like the way Peter Seth writes and I particularly liked the depth he gave to the narrator, despite the fact you wanted to shake some sense into him. He hit the nail on the head in capturing the summer camp experience—many of the events and activities he talked about actually happened at the summer camp I attended when I was younger.

As the book unfolded, I became more frustrated. The story became less and less probable, and while I believe that intense love makes us blind and causes us to act irrationally, I just couldn't believe the sequence of events that occurred. I also thought that the book went on a bit too long—while I understand it was to set up what transpired later, there were far too many instances of Rachel acting emotionally and the narrator mooning over her, and since Rachel didn't seem to be that appealing of a character (apart from her beauty), I found the story dragged.

There's an old saying that "Love makes such fools of us." What It Was Like clearly demonstrates the lengths to which we will go for the ones we love, no matter how it may destroy our own lives in the process.

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