The Way I Used to Be is Amber Smith’s debut young adult novel and chronicles the downward spiral of Eden McCrory in the aftermath of her rape by her brother’s best friend during freshman year of high school. The book follows Eden from freshman to senior year as she finds herself overwhelmed with the torrent of emotions that follow a profound trauma.
This is a difficult book to read, often sad, unsettling, and disheartening. Eden begins as a deeply sympathetic character, as she wrestles with anger at herself, at her parents for raising her to be someone who couldn’t stand up for herself, and at her older brother, whose friendship with her rapist feels like a betrayal even though she hasn’t told anyone about that night.
As the book progresses into senior year, one paradox is that the only way you could sympathize with the character that Eden becomes is to be inside her head, and yet the inside of her head is not where you want to be. Eden becomes this difficult and awful person in the aftermath of this trauma, unlikable despite telling you that she is scared and confused. As a reader, I often felt frustrated with her self-punishing spiral downward. As a party girl who disconnects from herself through a lot of destructive behaviors, she becomes a truly hard character. At one point, she calls herself “a stupid, mean little girl” and I didn’t really disagree.
The parts of the book that really stand out in their intensity are the parts with her brother, Caelin, who used to be Eden’s best friend before Caelin’s friend raped her. It is so clear how baffled and hurt he is by how different his little sister is, and their scenes together really leap off the page. This book is well-written, and the author is not afraid to go to very dark places emotionally. I raced through the book because despite the fact that I found Eden alienating as a reader, I still really wanted to find out what would happen, to see if she would find her way out and not remain utterly calcified.