After the death of her grandmother, Katherine is feeling at sea. Her so-called best friend has turned into a mean, boy-crazed stranger and she can’t seem to even feign interest in anything anymore. But a chance encounter with Marie, a self-professed straight-edge music lover makes her life colourful again. Over the course of one spring, Katherine navigates her depression, her loving but absent parents, and the possibility of love.
I love when an author’s personality imbues a novel. As a person, debut author Suzanne Sutherland is smart, warm, quirky, and mega-cool, all of which comes out in her novel. Music lovers will especially appreciate her careful attention to detail and the knowledge with which she recreates the underground music scene in Toronto at the turn of Y2K. It feels authentic but never exclusive. Sometimes books that are rooted so deeply in music culture can alienate a reader who has no reference for the kind of music discussed. This is not so in When We Were Good.
Writing characters with mental illness is always a delicate balance. Representing the character’s experience in an authentic way without alienating the reader is tricky stuff, but Sutherland manages to nab this balance. Marie is an interesting character and a unique love interest for Katherine, not solely because there are so few lesbian love stories in YA, but because she is just as irritating as she is endearing. I oscillated between really liking Marie to finding her oppressive throughout the novel, but there is no denying that her incredibly energy, dedication to music and sheer life force is exactly what Katherine needs.
I very much enjoyed the Toronto experience in the book and I imagine readers will, too. It’s not enough to mention street names (Queen West) and landmarks (Bloor Street Viaduct), in order to create an authentic experience you have to capture the atmosphere, energy and community of a city, which Sutherland does. It’s sad that in 2013 it feels like a rare treat to come across Canadian-isms in kidlit and YA. I do not believe that if a YA reader in Tennessee, Sheffield, or Brisbane picked up this (or any other Canadian specific book) they would frown at the place names and think, “Oh this is Canadian, I can’t relate” and stop reading. Good on Sutherland and Three O’Clock Press for sticking to their guns.
When We Were Good is available now in paperback from Three O’Clock Press.