Archetype: Diverse Protagonists
TW/CW: child abuse and neglect; allusions to and discussion of violence against sex workers; allusions to racist and homophobic language; intimate partner violence; drug and alcohol abuse; violence against animals
Summer in the City of Roses by Michelle Ruiz Keil is an engaging YA fantasy romance that, while it lovingly flirts with fairy tales and myths, unfortunately gets bogged down in an uneven engagement with magical realism. That situation isn’t helped by the inclusion of a parental figure whose selfish decision making supersedes just about any wicked stepmother out there, and an unfortunate ending that manages to perpetuate harmful tropes that are the opposite of the clearly compassionate and empathetic heart of the story.
At the center of Summer in the City of Roses are teen siblings Orr and Iph, whose whole world has been unmoored by the fact that their mother, Grace, accepted a dance residency in California and has left them alone with their father, Theo, for the summer. Theo seems not quite in sync with the rest of his family in meaningful ways. He is unable to resist misogynistic and paternalistic responses to moments when he thinks his daughter’s clothes will get her objectified, despite Iph asserting in the narration that Grace had “trained Dad against the sexism of policing his daughter’s clothes.” Theo also disengages with Orr entirely when Orr fails to have the same interests as his father. Not exactly top-notch dad-ing from Theo. Unfortunately, it only gets worse.
While not specifically stated, Orr appears to be neurodivergent, struggling with loud noises and other sensory hypersensitivities, misunderstanding social cues, and prone to meltdowns that sometimes are violent. Grace and Iph are both highly protective of Orr. They are both cognizant of his sensitivities and want to both support him so that he can develop the skills to be more independent, while shielding him from people that appear to be uninterested in meeting Orr where he is, like his father.
Summer in the City of Roses opens with 15-year-old Orr being kidnapped from his bed by strangers, men who are employees of the Meadowbrook Rehabilitation Center for Boys. Theo has decided that Orr, who has become understandably withdrawn since his mother left, needs to be fixed. Theo’s brilliant idea is to send him to a wilderness boot camp for “difficult” boys where he would be physically, emotionally, and psychologically abused by strangers, or as Theo puts it, “made stronger”. Because that’s how you “fix” neurodivergence, apparently. Slow clap, Theo, you jackass.
Theo decides to do all this without telling his wife or his daughter, specifically drawing Iph out of their home so that she cannot interfere with the planned kidnapping and then springing the plan on her out in public, thereby minimizing and controlling the ways that she can respond.
Theo had taken Iph to Portland to an event held by the business he owns, far enough away from their home in the suburbs of Portland that when she runs away from him in anger and frustration, she is quickly lost without any way to get back home unless she goes back to her father. Wandering through Old Town Portland without her glasses and in high heeled shoes that are quickly rendering her feet a bloody mess, Iph quite literally can’t see her way home.
Rescued by a genderqueer Robin Hood called George (George has a bow and arrow and EVERYTHING!) who quotes Shakespeare and is accompanied by the Goodest of Good Girls, Scout the dog, Iph is drawn into George’s world as she decides how to find and save her brother.
Initially unable to find her father, who chose to leave Portland and return home without her, Iph crashes with George, who, as the many ex-girlfriends reveal, seems to have a pathological need to rescue maidens in trouble (get therapy, George!). George takes Iph across Portland, relying on friends and ex-girlfriends to help track down Orr. George is very tenuously housed and is well acquainted with other people, mostly teens, that are similarly living at the margins of Portland.
Orr, after his kidnapping, manages to quickly escape the boot camp with a little help from a mouse who chewed through his restraints (yes, the boot camp put him in restraints. I hate Theo so much) and a coyote guiding his way. Once along a highway, he runs into members of a wonderful, all-girl punk band called The Furies, who quickly decide to take him back with them to Portland to wait out his mother’s return.
I really loved how Summer in the City of Roses attempts to engage with magical realism throughout the story. Orr receiving help from wild animals and Orr and Iph managing to momentarily communicate with each other psychically made the story more unpredictable and also helped to more firmly establish the fairy tale logic that the story wanted to engage with. Many factors contribute to making the story and the setting in Portland seem otherworldly, too. The characters randomly quote Shakespeare to each other in conversation (which is not entirely weird because Iph and George are theatre nerds). The main characters have names straight out of Greek myths (Orestes and Iphigenia), plus Iph is deeply sensitive to the feelings of others, allowing her to see and feel things that others could not. There’s even the occasional ritual.
For me, the weakness of the magical realism was its inconsistency. Summer in the City of Roses sprinkles moments of magic in the first three-quarters of the story. But once I was accustomed to the occasional sparkles of otherworldliness, the last quarter of the story becomes positively drenched. It is a distracting switch that weakens the story, because it seems to not trust me to understand the more subtle engagements with magical realism that preceded it.
That inconsistent use of magical realism also undermines the empathetic core of the story.
Orr turning entirely into an animal felt drastically far away from the moments when a little mouse chewed through his bindings at the boot camp. It’s also unfortunate because Orr, a neurodivergent boy of color, is the only person in the story to transform.
There was so much that I liked about Summer in the City of Roses. It is filled with queer love of all ages, which made me go AWWWWWW and momentarily distracted me from plotting Theo’s death. But I can’t help but see the end as a moment where a neurodivergent boy of color has his humanity stripped from him. No one else makes such a transformation, moving from human to animal. Reducing both people of color and neurodivergent people to animals is a common trope used by people in power to other and to justify harm upon those folks.
Orr’s perception of why Theo sent strangers to commit violence against him was because “he wants a real boy”, which (1) heartbreaking, but also (2) speaks to the very real way categorizing people as nonhuman (e.g., not a “real boy”) is in itself an act of violence. But that choice is also then used to justify more violence against Orr. Orr has always been aware of his father’s rejection of him, the violence of it, the certainty in it. And what the story does is reproduce what happens in the real world. It allows some (cough wealthy white men like Theo cough) to leverage violent oppressive systems of power that they have access to as a matter of right.
Every other part of Summer in the City of Roses is deeply empathetic. The story treats homeless teen sex workers with kindness and lovingly spends a few pages with an elderly queer couple where at least one of the members of the couple is struggling with addiction and an abscess from intravenous drug use. Iph at one point has a run in with a person who appears to be homeless and mentally ill and she responds only to try to help him find a way out of his agitation. There is no judgment in those interactions, and the care and empathy to those characters is almost self-consciously intentional.
With the narration working so hard to not judge and harm folks who have been marginalized, Orr’s transformation is particularly jarring. Everything preceding that point in the narration points to the impossibility of such an intentionally cruel heart to the story, but Orr’s dehumanization overtakes every other loving experience in the novel. And because the magical realism was so slight in the first parts of the story, I wasn’t afforded the opportunity of seeing how or why anyone else, besides Orr, might also be so thoroughly transformed.
The narrative choice to turn Orr into a stag ultimately does the thing that Theo tried to do at the beginning — banishes Orr to another kind of wilderness boot camp, away from his family and his newly discovered friends, granting him the right to exist only while stripping his humanity away from him. That conclusion to the story made me even more sad than I was mad at Theo and I am still actively updating the list of ways I could (theoretically, of course, WINK) kill him.
From my total heartbreak to someone who I would just like to break, the other major weakness in the story is Theo. Oh Theo, let me count the ways you are trash. Theo:
1. Hires strangers to kidnap his neurodivergent son;
2. Sends his neurodivergent son to a wilderness boot camp without really thinking through what his son, who has more sensitivities than some other kids might, would experience while there;
3. Doesn’t tell his wife, who is out of the state and has her own very sad history of child abuse, that he is going to send his son off to some camp to be physically abused;
4. Kinda just shrugs when both his kids refuse to return home;
5. Thinks that his son running away from the boot camp and being taken in by a group of punk rockers is proof that he was right about what his son needed and is SO SMUG about it to Iph;
6. Doesn’t ever tell his wife that their two, MINOR children have run away from home;
7. Doesn’t think about a way to get his kids money to survive on because they are 15 and 17 and he knows, HE KNOWS that they have no money on them at all and that they are planning on staying in Portland for 3 months. 3 MONTHS!!!!
The worst part of it is the end, where Grace and Theo end up together. There is no obvious grovel. And granted, as far as I’m concerned there is no grovel that is enough for the multitudes of betrayal we observe through the story. For all the Iph talks about her mother being this fierce feminist kitchen witch that would protect Orr and Iph to the ends of the earth, the happily ever after that ends with Grace and Theo still together was truly baffling.
As a reader, I felt gaslit about Theo’s behavior in the book. While I was totally grossed out and/or horrified in reaction to many things Theo did, the ways the other characters responded made me feel like I was overreacting. The first time we see Theo and Iph interacting is when he has a look of horror on his face because Iph is in a dress that puts what he thinks is too much emphasis on the fact that she is in possession of boobs. Iph is immediately made to feel insecure and puts a sweater on. Later when some stranger on the street stares at her, Iph is immediately like Dad is right, I should have never worn this dress. Me as the reader wants to be like no, sweetie, your dad sucks and that stranger sucks, but there’s nothing wrong with the body you have or how it looks in clothes.
My having the opposite reaction to Theo’s behavior than everyone else was a constant feature as I read the book. But also, part of me feeling gaslit comes from the fact that Grace is so absent through the entire story. She is the center of Iph and Orr’s world, but we really only know her through things Iph and Orr say about her. She’s a character defined entirely through how her children see her and she is never available to the reader the way that her husband is. I’ve got a lot of comments about Theo’s behavior because he is front and center. Grace, however, is much less present. She is the natural balance to call Theo out on his nonsense — they are partners! — but because we never see their reunion, only the TENSE silence that comes after, we don’t actually know what Grace might be mad about. And, since they stay together, we know that nothing Theo did was bad enough to make Grace want to leave the marriage. But I’ve got a whole list of things that seem pretty bad!
Summer in the City of Roses is hard for me to recommend, as much as I liked parts of it. Orr’s ending is tragic, and Evil Dad’s ending was even worse. A neurodivergent boy of color is banished from society and his father, who never saw him as human, suffers no consequences for the violence he directed against his own children besides temporarily dealing with a hostile silence from a betrayed wife.
Despite all of the wonderfulness of multiple queer romances, genderqueer characters, and a continuing commitment to recognize the humanity of just about every character on its pages, the fact that a neurodivergent boy of color’s journey in this story ends with him living inside a nonhuman body creates a harmful hierarchy of who deserves to be seen as human. The fact that the only person that ends up on the list of nonhumans is Orr is an unfortunate choice that only serves to reify destructive narratives about neurodivergent children and the possibilities of their futures as adults.