Romance, Post-High School Paths & Sexism in Stir Me Up by Sabrina Elkins
Sabrina Elkins' debut novel, Stir Me Up, has a lot going for it: a charming romance, a positive undertone regarding female sexuality and a great portrayal of how the college track right after high school isn't the best thing for everyone (more of this, please). Unfortunately, just as many frustrating, unnecessary and un-nuanced plot and character issues kept Stir Me Up from being that satisfying read I hoped it would be.
High school senior Camille (Cami) grew up in her father's French restaurant in Vermont, and dreams of a career much like her father's. Becoming a chef is truly her passion, and over the years, she's slowly earned her father's trust as she's worked her way up from prepping vegetables to making the restaurant's soup du jour once a week. While her father wants her to attend University of Vermont so she can keep her future options open, Cami knows what she wants: a future in the kitchen of a top restaurant.
Her world is disrupted, though, when her stepmother Estella's nephew (whom she raised), Julian, moves into Cami's house. Julian is a 20-year old Marine who was severely injured in an IED explosion in Afghanistan. He's lost part of one of his legs and sustained numerous other injuries. Understandably, he's angry and hostile.
Despite the abrasiveness of the first encounters, Cami can't help but kind of, sort of like Julian. She throws a muffin at him (he's a jerk to her because she brings him food--he doesn't like to be coddled at all) and he eats it; he's supportive of her friend who's choosing between the opportunity to act in a feature film and al the high school rights of passage; he helps Cami with her dreaded college essay.
This progression of Cami and Julian's relationship from grumpy housemates to friends to boyfriend/girlfriend was the strongest element of Stir Me Up.
I completely believed the development of this couple's relationship--and was glad that Elkins developed their relationship in a way that allowed them to get to know each other as people first.
“Hey,” he says as I perch next to him. “What’s that?”
“Wow.” He takes a bite while it’s still on my lap.
“Good?” I ask.
“Unreal.” He gives me a disarming smile. “It’s like a big kiss.”
“It tastes like a kiss?”
“Lots of your food does—because that’s how you mean it.”
I look differently at the plate while he eats half the pancake. He feeds some to me and then pulls me against him. “I guess you figured me out,” I say.
He smiles and steals a slice of apple from what’s left. “I guess I did.”
The same is true of the progression of Julian and Cami's physical relationship, which is handled tastefully and positively. Cami feels awkward and slightly embarrassed because she wants Julian so much, and it 1) reads a normal reaction given where she's at in her life and 2) Julian's responsive to Cami's awkwardness is absolutely endearing. (More of this sort of honestly in YA, please. Thanks in advance.) Though, quite frankly, some of the sex scenes (which were not graphic, incidentally) seemed cobbled into the story so it would appeal to the "new adult" fans, since they don't flow with the narrative. (Go ahead and get out your pitchforks and call me a prude, but it's annoying when sex doesn't flow with the narrative.)
On that same subject, the subplot early in Stir Me Up regarding Cami's then-boyfriend Luke and his pressuring her to have sex was wholly unnecessary. My assumption is that this was done to create conflict and further illustrate that Julian is a Good Guy, due to his contrast with Luke, but it was so obvious that this was what the author was trying to achieve, that is was borderline eye roll-inducing. Furthermore, there's a strange moment near the end of Stir Me Up when Cami's standard-issue best friend mentions that the ex, Luke, texted to ask if Cami was dating Julian, which seems to further simply exist to serve as a reminder that Cami chose the better guy.
I feel like I'm a broken record these days, but readers aren't stupid, and we don't need these heavy-handed contrasts if characters are developed well.
Frankly, if Luke didn't exist, Stir Me Up would have likely been a better, more tightly-paced novel.
This also would have given the novel space to explore the underdeveloped plot-point of Julian's post-traumatic stress disorder. Julian is clearly suffering from the condition (he has violent nightmares and early on in the story also experiences the outbursts of rage near the beginning of the book), and if he and Cami are going to have a healthy, maturing relationship, it's something that's going to need to be addressed. They dance around it, but it's never explored in depth, which felt like a disservice to their story.
A storyline that was far better fleshed out was the tension between Cami's clear view of what she wanted in her future career versus her father's hopes and dreams for her in the form of a college education and a path beyond the kitchen.
While this is a sweeping generalization, the most common path for YA protagonists is the high school graduation → college track, which is reflective of the common, and not necessarily right for everyone, contemporary American ethos (bless you, Europeans and Australians, with your sensible Gap Year).
Cami wants to be a chef and believes the best path for achieving that through an apprenticeship (her guidance counselor keeps suggesting cooking school, which amuses her, since her entire childhood has been cooking school). Likewise, Julian joins the Army after high school graduation, and the judgement he faces reads as realistic for young people who make that decision. (Though part of me wishes the Julian hadn't been portrayed as the Very Special Soldier who had off-the-charts SAT scores and great grades--I wonder if the story would have been stronger if he'd been a more typical enlistee akin to Travis from Trish Doller's phenomenal Something Like Normal?)
(Note: At some point, I promise that Laura and I will put together a substantive list of YA novels featuring non-college post-high school paths, because this is definitely something that's worthy of spotlighting. I realize the maybe-silliness of me saying this as someone who followed exactly that path, plus the addition of graduate school... Oh well.)
But, despite how much I liked this aspect of Stir Me Up, there was an element related to it that disturbed me quite a bit: the unexamined sexism in in Cami's father's objections to her pursuit of a life in the kitchen.
The biggest reason Cami's father wants her to go to college and look at options beyond being a chef is that he doesn't think the life of a chef is conducive with family life (it's the reason Cami's mother left him). This is a true statement. However, he makes so many assumptions about what Cami wants out of life, particularly that she wants to be a wife and mother, despite that she never, ever indicates that this is what she wants. And, he assumes that if she chooses that life, that she--as a woman--will be responsible for child-rearing.
“I know how much it means to you that I go to college. I’m sorry to disappoint you. And I am definitely going to make sure I’m somehow around for my children someday. No idea yet how that’s going to work. But it won’t be by giving up what I love most right from the start. That’s just not going to happen.”
Loads of people think this way, true, but I had a hard time believing that Cami, who spent her life in the kitchen, would be unaware of this downside of her chosen career. She would have thought about this. And, driven girl that the text tells the reader she is, I expected her to push back on her father's sexism. And yet, she really doesn't. This is another one of those points in Stir Me Up where the story could have had more weight, yet merely scratches the surface.
Stir Me Up is the first title in Harlequin's expanded digital-first program, and while it's being sold as a young adult novel, I wonder if that's really the intended audience.
It has high appeal for the adult audience of crossover YA readers (many of whom are turning to the fledgling "new adult" genre/category/whatever), but given that actual teens (who make up over 70 percent of YA readers) prefer print, it seems that the ebook exclusive nature of this book plus the narrative that fits more with adult contemporary romance, the audience for this one isn't really teens. (Though I do think many teens will enjoy it this romance, just as many teens enjoy adult romance as a whole.) If you've read this novel, I'd love to hear your thoughts on if it's actually geared toward a teen audience or not--it's certainly possible I've over-thought this.
I realize it may sound like Stir Me Up isn't worth the read, but I did enjoy it.
It's well-paced and the romance--while schmaltzy at times--is pretty charming. The writing is definitely promising, though it has some issues in execution with some awkward phrasing and too-tidy of resolutions to many plot threads. (PSA to authors everywhere: it's "couldn't care less" not "could care less." And a "patchwork quilt" is not knitted, that would be an afghan.) And, like so many recent books, Stir Me Up could use some fact-checking/Googling to create more authenticity (for example, the existence of child labor laws are entirely ignored, as Cami works 50 hour weeks at her father's restaurant).
But, Stir Me Up is definitely a worthy choice if you're looking for a quick, heartwarming and romantic read.
Stir Me Up is currently only available in ebook form.
Disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher.