Camp Utopia and the Forgiveness Diet by Jenny Ruden – Review by Allisyn Shindle
I am notorious for spotting a book at the bookstore, taking a mental note of the title, and then forgetting the title by the time I ask myself, now what was that book I wanted to read called again? When I spotted Jenny Ruden’s Camp Utopia and the Forgiveness Diet though, the title was so intriguing that I temporarily overcame my habitual forgetfulness.
In the summer of her sixteenth year, Bethany Stern is forced to attend a weight loss camp—Camp Utopia—despite her frequent and vehement protestations. When Bethany leaves her home in Baltimore to journey to California, she reluctantly leaves behind TJ, her best friend and love of her life.
The night before Bethany leaves, she stumbles across an infomercial for The Forgiveness Diet—a diet that claims anyone can lose weight simply by forgiving others, guaranteed. Although she’s skeptical, Bethany decides to try the diet, writing down every secret and grudge she’s ever kept on tiny pieces of paper. These pieces of paper cause problems that Bethany never could have imagined, proving that before things get better, sometimes they have to get worse . . .
A lot worse. When Bethany arrives at Camp Utopia, it isn’t anything like what she’s expecting, and she wasn’t expecting much. The camp is filled with rude campers, ridiculous diet and exercise schedules, and weekly public weigh-ins. The only thing Bethany wants to do when she arrives is turn around and head home. Still, just because Camp Utopia isn’t what Bethany though it would be, it doesn’t mean she can’t change it—and change her attitude in the process.
One of my favorite things about Ruden’s novel were Bethany’s emails to the people she must forgive—TJ, her father, her sister, even Michael Osbourne, author of The Forgiveness Diet. She often saves the emails as drafts, and her electronic letters become a type of diary. Vaguely stream of consciousness-like in their form, the emails are laugh-out-loud funny yet deeply poignant and heartfelt. Readers gain insight into Bethany and her relationships with other characters as she writes to her friends and family in times of emotional turmoil.
In addition to Bethany’s email, I also admired her authenticity as a character. Some YA novels I’ve read feature protagonists whose descriptions are too aesthetic without any major character flaws, so Bethany was a breath of fresh air. She’s a perfect contradiction of insecurity and confidence, a typical stubborn teenager whose experiences at Camp Utopia inevitably transform her. Actually, Ruden’s character development overall is admirable. I especially loved reading about Bethany’s roommate Tabitha.
In Camp Utopia and the Forgiveness Diet, Ruden masterfully manages to debunk the notion of too many teenagers that if only they were prettier, thinner, smarter, more popular, etc. then they could begin living. I marked one passage in particular:
“Didn’t they know what it felt like to have a perfect stranger offer advice just because they happened to notice your dress size? You’d be so pretty if . . . You’d be perfect if . . . And the diets! What we’re willing to try—throwing up, spitting out, tossing secrets in a fish bowl. All of us banking on the unlikely possibility that we could wake up, unzip our old skin, and find something shiny and beautiful inside.”
Bethany captures what many of us realize only after we’ve left high school behind. I hope teenagers read Camp Utopia and The Forgiveness Diet and heed Bethany’s powerful observation.
Overall, what I admired most about Ruden’s debut novel was that forgiveness—not weight loss—figures as the most important theme. As the novel unfolds, Bethany ditches insincere words on slips of paper in exchange for meaningful conversations with those who she must forgive. In this way, Ruden demonstrates that forgiveness promotes growth and is essential for closure and moving forward. Throughout the novel, Bethany not only learns that her grudges are damaging, but also that forgiveness can lead to a surprisingly new perspective.
If you are or were a teenager struggling with body image, you should probably read this book. If as a teen you currently suffer or have ever suffered the heartache of unrequited love, you should also probably read this book. If in the present or past you’ve struggled to forgive your parents, siblings, friends, or all of the above, you should definitely read this book. Basically, if you are or once were a teenager, you need to read this book.
Allisyn Shindle recently graduated college with a degree in English. She dreams of one day working in book publishing. Allisyn has always loved books and strongly believes that the most empathetic people are probably also avid readers. She currently works as a substitute teacher for preschoolers and—perhaps a little too enthusiastically—often volunteers to read to them during story time. You can connect with her on Twitter at @AllisynShindle.