Let me begin by saying that, in my opinion, Ann Jacobus nailed it in Romancing the Dark in the City of Light. She nailed the struggle with addiction, she nailed physical limitations, she nailed alcoholic and disability-related depression, she nailed the chaos of the active alcoholic, and she nailed the hopelessness and despair that can come from all of it.
I went into this book with alcoholism in mind since I’m a recovering alcoholic. Being over ten years sober, I’m rather far removed from the chaos of active drinking, but Romancing the Dark brought it all back. Like slamming on the brakes of a fully loaded moving van, all the old feelings came rushing at me like heavy boxes and old furniture.
Eighteen-year-old Summer Barnes—the book’s protagonist—stumbles through life keeping everyone at a good, safe distance. She uses sarcasm and bitchiness as a defense against getting too close to people because in her mind, she’ll just disappoint them. She has terribly low self-esteem, believing herself lower than scum. Therefore, her only friend is alcohol, and alcohol has gotten her kicked out of every high school she tries to finish. Unfortunately, Summer must finish high school and college in order to fulfill the requirements of her grandfather’s will and receive millions. Romancing the Dark picks up with Summer after her move to Paris, where she will attempt, yet again, to finish high school.
This is not an easy feat for Summer Barnes. Summer is a classic alcoholic. She drinks to cope with attending class, she drinks to survive being around people on the streets or people at home, she drinks to be alone, she drinks when happy, sad, and every emotion in between. She drinks to survive. She’s an only child who longs for siblings, not for company but to divert family attention. Her mother is always traveling, and disdainful of her daughter upon returning. Summer believes all her mother cares about is appearances, not Summer’s future. Of course Summer wants the money, but she also longs to stroll with a boy, holding hands. Perhaps this school in France will be the answer. It’s the classic alcoholic geographical gambit. We alcoholics tend to believe that changing our location will fix our problems, forgetting that wherever we go, there we are. Everything will be okay when: she moves, she loses weight, when she finds the right boy.
Enter Moony, the only student at her new school to approach Summer. She’s put off by his limp, mangled hand, and wandering eyes, the results of a near-fatal car accident. (I have multiple sclerosis, so this character was as relatable to me as Summer was, due to his physical disabilities.) When Moony asks Summer to help with an upcoming theater show, she finds her sarcastic bitchiness doesn’t work on him. As she gets to know him, Summer even realizes she likes him, and so do all the other kids in school. It turns out Moony was popular before his accident, and the kids still embraced him. I kept questioning his popularity because it felt hard to believe—kids can be so cruel—but popular disabled teenagers do exist and it’s nice to see this kind of less common depiction of a disabled character. One reason for his continued popularity is his positivity and happiness—traits that might feel unreal to some readers, but not to me. Like him, I’m happy and positive for the most part, and because of that, am more popular now than I ever was in high school.
I identified so much with Moony’s desire to do everything independently and as normal as possible. Moony was the physically disabled part of me, Summer the alcoholic. Let’s just say this book was full of feelings for me.
And the character of Kurt, who seems to appear out of nowhere, fueled even more of those feelings. Older, charismatic, and sexy, Kurt tempts Summer back into drinking every time she tries to stop and do what she must in order to fulfill the terms of the will. Moony warns her away from him, but she has a hard time resisting.
I’ve met men like Kurt. He was the guys I went home with, the ones who sent me on the walk of shame.
Huge spoiler to follow!
While reading, I kept thinking, Who is this guy? The devil? He feels like a devil. Jacobus drops hints as she leads us to the big reveal: Kurt isn’t a man at all. He’s the embodiment of the evil that stalks us all—alcoholics, addicts, those struggling with depression. It’s the lack of hope, the grim reaper of despair trying to drag us down. Moony can see him too, and both he and Summer almost fall prey to it. I’ve met this man, this sexy stranger, this evil. He came for me after I finished Romancing the Dark and all my old feelings were raw, the old wounds reopened.
This is why, for me, Jacobus nailed the portrayal of disability. Not just Summer’s, but Moony’s as well. In particular, I loved that Moony has a realistic breakdown at one point: it showed the human side of living with a disability. No matter how cheerful you are, no matter how positive, you still have days where it’s like, nope, I don’t wanna keep doing this. I’m done. Call Kurt.
All in all, I think the book was very well done. Jacobus had a firm grasp on what it feels like to live with both alcoholism and a physical disability. In my opinion, Summer and Moony were believable, and it was fun to have the story set in France for a change of pace. I liked the ending too—it was a good conclusion, with no miracles—though it was slightly predictable.
The reader is left to imagine the path Summer is now on—will she grow up? will she fulfill the terms of the will?—with a brief mention of Alcoholics Anonymous and possible future redemption. The future is open.
The end of the book includes phone numbers for readers to call if they need help.