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Posts Tagged ‘Jenny Ruden

The older I get, the more likely I am to stop reading a book with little appeal. Camp Utopia by Jenny Ruden fits that description for me. Despite its compassionate portrayal of an overweight teen trying to lose weight, other aspects of the book failed to work for me. The plot has contrivances, the characters don’t act nice, and the book is overly long.

The main storyline of sixteen-year-old Bethany who is sent to Camp Utopia, otherwise known as fat camp, holds potential. Unfortunately, contrivances get in the way of what otherwise could have been a plausible story: Bethany’s draft emails just happen to get accidentally sent; Her dad just happens to pick that moment, despite having ignored her for years, to take an interest; When faced with the decision of whether to run away from camp or stay, Bethany and her friend just happen to experience an earthquake that results in one of those “my life flashed before me” moments; When all other options of escape run out, Bethany just happens to receive an email from an one-time acquaintance who is willing to help out whatever way she can.

Anyone who has ever tried to change their weight, or any part of their appearance, will relate to Bethany’s struggles. Unfortunately, none of the characters including Bethany herself are all that likable. Bethany lies and steals without any apparent remorse. She also seems to hate everyone in her life, not that I completely blame her: Bethany’s mother can’t take the time to drive her to camp, but relegates the job to her sister; Bethany’s sister only accepts the task because she wants to go on a road trip, which means she has no patience for listening to her younger sister; The dad has long been out of the picture; And TJ acts like he cares, even signs a postcard with the word “love,” but then puts personal desires ahead of her.

As for the length of a book, that is actually relative. With substance, a book could be 600 pages and it would seem like 300. The problem is that Camp Utopia is 300 and probably should have been half that. Despite attempts to throw in a host of family issues, Camp Utopia feels like a romance novel about an overweight girl. There’s a whole lot of swooning and “woe-is-me” attitude but otherwise not a whole lot of action. I could accept the lack of substance if the novel were shorter, but as it is the novel feels bloated. The first really interesting moment doesn’t happen until around midway when those emails mysteriously get sent. By that point, I have sadly lost patience.

Admittedly, the last half of Camp Utopia contains more plot substance and reveals reasons for Bethany’s negativity. However, it’s also one of those “too little too late” scenarios. Ruden does have many writing credits to her name. I also admire Ruden for tackling the often overlooked population of overweight teens. Unfortunately, Camp Utopia isn’t the novel that will make me a fan.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?


For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

–James Baldwin

The above quote is a favorite of author Jennifer Ruden, whose debut novel Camp Utopia is about sixteen-year-old Baltimore teen Bethany Stern who knows the only way out of spending her summer at Camp Utopia is weight-loss. Desperate, she tries The Forgiveness Diet, whose infomercial promises that all she has to do is forgive her deadbeat dad, her scandalous sister, and the unrequited love of her life. When the diet fails Bethany bids farewell to the camp only to learn that running away isn’t as easy—or as healing—as it seems.


In my biographical research, I mostly found anecdotes and random facts about Jennifer Ruden. Throughout all my searches, what stood out most is that like many published authors she grew up liking to write. Ruden tells Examiner that she loved gathering stories from people. She loved curse words and raunchiness and people’s secrets. She typically embellished things and downright lied. And all these things helped her become a writer. She also shares with Literal Exposure that the first story she ever wrote was in kindergarten. It was about a hippo in ballet class that splits her pants. Ruden goes onto reveal that she recently took her kids to a trampoline park and, lo and behold, she split her pants.:-)

Despite her love of reading and writing, Ruden for years and years to be a veterinarian. She gave up on that dream when she flunked Biology and Chemistry because she didn’t study. According to Literal Exposure, she majored in Psychology so she could figure out why she was so crazy. “Turns out,” Ruden says, “I wasn’t crazy. I was just a writer!”

As an adult, Ruden has worked with teens in non-traditional settings. This has entailed teaching GED for many years, serving JenniferRudenas a reading specialist for teens with learning disabilities, and working in high school as a sort of book club leader. She tries to channel those voices in her writing, which she has taken seriously on and off for about forty years. Ruden states in her Bio that it also helps that she recalls her teenage years more intensely than any other time in her life.

As to what inspired her to first take writing seriously, Ruden tells Literal Exposure that she had a teacher in undergraduate who was getting an MFA in poetry. Ruden had no idea one could get an advanced degree in creative writing, but two years later she herself I was accepted into an MFA program. Now she balances a full-time job and family with writing. However, Ruden also notes in her Bio that she can go months without writing. “Then, after I’ve daydreamed for about a year, ran several traffic signals, stared out random windows for approximately 2400 hours, lost track of a thousand of conversations, washed the same load of laundry four times in a row, I just kind of explode. I lock myself in a room and write like a maniac. It’s not a good process or even a healthy one, but it’s mine….”


According to Ruden’s Bio, Camp Utopia is only partially a “fat camp” book. Ruden doesn’t think the setting could have been anywhere but a fat camp book, but she also hopes it reaches beyond the confines of Utopia. She herself has never been to a weight loss camp, and so even though she drew upon her own experience as an overweight teen, she wishes foremost for readers to connect with Bethany’s voice regardless of one’s own weight.

When it comes to the plot, Ruden included a cross-country trip because the camp felt so quintessentially California to her, but because she’s from Baltimore she couldn’t imagine beginning the book anywhere else. Also, if it were closer to Baltimore, Bethany would have just hitched a ride on the Turnpike to return to beloved TJ.

As for its roots in magic, Ruden picked up her knowledge from Google. 🙂 She also went to The Magic Shop in Albuquerque, which has a plethora of trick books, and a few magic shows around town too. If given a choice between going to the movies or seeing a magic show, Ruden would choose a magic show.

When it comes to characters, Ruden notes that she grew up in a very diverse city and attended a high school that was mostly African-American. She still lives in a diverse city, as well as teaches in a college that is mostly Hispanic. Therefore, she wanted to write a book whose cast of characters more inclusively reflected the world she inhabits. Other facts include:

  • Those who know Ruden say that she is Bethany’s voice. The name itself comes from Bethany Beach in Delaware, a favorite vacation spot.
  • TJ is loosely based on a really hot guy Ruden liked in early adulthood who had no interest in her.
  • Cambridge is a composite of many friends Ruden feels been blessed to have had over the years.
  • Gabe just slid up on his skateboard in her imagination one day.
  • Liliana reminds Ruden of her students, only raunchier.

Ruden says she told part of Bethany’s story through emails, instant message conversations, and GPS maps, because teens love tech. Well, there’s also the fact Ruden is an aspiring geek herself. When her iPad broke she wept and when she couldn’t get her GPS to work she nearly had a seizure. So, it seemed dishonest to write a contemporary book without technology.

Camp Utopia is Ruden’s debut novel. She has also published short stories and essays in literary publications, been named a finalist in Glimmertrain’s short fiction contest, won an Orlando award for creative nonfiction, received a nomination for the Pushcart prize two years in a row. She lives with her husband, two daughters, two basset hounds and cat in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’ll review Camp Utopia tomorrow. Save the date: January 23!

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