The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Emery Lord wrote my favorite YA book, so she’s always going to get something resembling a pass for me even if what she does isn’t perfect. When We Collided was a gorgeous emotional roller-coaster, but I can’t help but feel like The Names They Gave Us is a step backward in terms of what Lord has shown she’s capable of and the emotional gravity of her more recent work.
The story follows Lucy, a girl raised by a pastor in a very religious family. Her mother has cancer, her boyfriend wants to put their relationship on pause, and so it’s decided that it will be a good idea for Lucy to spend her summer at the secular summer camp nearby as opposed to the religious camp she has traditionally gone to each year. There, she meets a lot of new kids and counselors and has her horizons widened in ways she never predicted.
The good first: Emery Lord knows how to write a compelling main character who is flawed and interesting without making them unrealistic. Lucy is religious and semi-sheltered, but this isn’t presented in a shameful way, or in a way that shows her to be some sort of freak that we shouldn’t buy into, and that’s fairly refreshing. It makes for an interesting way to create some conflicts without being insulting.
The bad, though? Lord has succeeded, up until now, to putting together narratives that don’t appear to be checkbox worthy, and this just feels like a sort of tolerance tale that we’re along for the ride on. Teen pregnancy? Check. Trans issues? Check. Cultural differences? Check. Worse, Lucy (while, again, not being raised to be intolerant at all) does not give much of an impression about any internal struggle or confliction about any of these issues. On one hand, kudos to her (and Lord) for making it no big deal, but what instead happens is a complete lack of opportunity to demonstrate some empathy for the other side in an era where none exists. And that might be fine on its own, but with the current social situation in YA publishing, it’s difficult not to wonder whether it impacted things.
Overall, a good read, but it had a lot of potential to be better. As an evangelist for The Start of Me and You for years now, I’ll still be pointing to that for the best of YA. This one felt more Open Road Summer, which is a misstep at this point.
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