Review of The Summer of Bitter and Sweet, by Jen Ferguson

The Summer of Bitter and Sweet

by Jen Ferguson
read by Julie Lumsden

Heartdrum, 2022. 10 hours, 8 minutes.
Review written May 5, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2023 William Morris Award Finalist
2023 Stonewall Honor Book
2022 Cybils Award Winner, Young Adult Fiction

I try to read the winners I miss during the year of publication, and this one took me a long time to get around to listening to. I think the cover put me off, honestly — maybe they could have done something with ice cream? But as soon as I started listening, I was captivated.

The story is of the summer after high school of a Métis girl named Louisa who lives with her mother and uncles in the prairies of Alberta, Canada. They’ve got a dairy farm, and her uncle makes ice cream, experimenting with a wide variety of natural flavors. Bits at the start of each chapter talk about the ice cream and the flavors and colors and how to create them, and oh my goodness, it made me want some ice cream, preferably from Salt & Straw, which also uses natural local flavorings (for the most part).

This summer, Lou is working with her best friend and boyfriend at the ice cream shack. And then she learns that her uncle has hired King Nathan, her best friend from four years ago, who fled to his mother in Toronto after a big bust-up between them.

But right at the start, Lou breaks up with her boyfriend. Their relationship has been all about Louisa giving him oral sex, and she isn’t feeling it. (The book isn’t even that delicate about saying what’s been going on.) Because she didn’t enjoy anything they did together, she’s worried something’s wrong with her and afraid to start a relationship with King because of that.

But a much bigger drama comes into her life when she starts getting letters from her biological father — the white guy who raped her mother and left her for dead eighteen years ago. He’s gotten out of prison, and now wants his name on her birth certificate. And gets more and more threatening about it.

Lou’s mother is out of town, selling her beadwork on the powwow circuit, and Lou wants to protect her from knowing her rapist is out of prison and in their town. But at the same time, Lou wishes her mother were there when her life is getting so complicated.

I hope my summary of these problems doesn’t make you think, Why would anyone want to read something with so many problems? But, oh, the writing is so beautiful! And yes, Lou is a flawed character — but she learns to face her issues, and the growing relationship with King is beautifully portrayed. I especially like that they have setbacks and get mad at one another — but then take steps to make it right and really listen.

Now, there’s talk about being asexual or demisexual — and I’m not sure I like the idea that not enjoying even kissing someone whom you don’t know well and who’s pressuring you to have oral sex with him makes you remotely out of the ordinary. But on the other hand, yes, this may be what a teen would think, so all the more power to having this situation shown on the pages of a wonderful book. (Lou says she gave her consent until she broke up with him. But all the more reason to look for enthusiastic consent.)

There are also many instances of racism portrayed in this book. And things aren’t tied up in a tidy bow at the end of it. But again, let me stress that I came away from listening to this audiobook simply overwhelmed by the wonderful experience of being pulled into Lou’s world.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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