Gloria is spending her entire summer before her senior year at a camp for gifted and talented kids. She’s not sure what to expect, but she’s pretty excited, and is looking forward to a summer of learning and distractions from the recent loss of her beloved grandmother. What Gloria ends up experiencing is more than she could ever have imagined. Between the mysterious clues her technophobic Professor X leaves for the students to a new group of forever friends, Gloria is in for a summer she’ll never forget.
This sweet, mostly thoughtful debut novel by Sarah Combs will hit a sweet spot for some readers. Earnest and uneven (sometimes distractingly so), this novel hints at Combs’s talents but doesn’t fully realize them. That being said, it’s likely to find an audience all the same.
Part of the novel’s charm is in its prose. Combs fills her novel with memorable, pretty prose. The novel is as much a love story to the state of Kentucky as it is a coming-of-age tale for Gloria. These bits are standouts, and readers who love a good sentence are likely to be wooed by these descriptive bits. There’s a lot of southern charm here, and this might even be more of a hit depending on the geographic location of the reader.
But there are parts that don’t work, too. Combs’s packs her novel so full of issues that it feels daunting and overwhelming. At times, there are too many issues on the plate: racism, death, sexuality, family, religion, etc. All of this overwhelms the things that work–the exploration of new friendships, the bottle-effect a sleep-away camp can have on its inhabitants, etc.
Also frustrating is Gloria’s characterization, which can feel uneven at times. Although it’s clear that Combs means for Gloria to be judgmental, she’s so over-the-top judgmental and immature at times that it’s hard to reconcile those aspects of her personality with her more mature ones (her extensive bibliography of classic literature references, for one). While this reader realizes that most humans have this kind of complexity, it often doesn’t feel intentional so much as choppy.
That being said, there’s a readership for this one, and Combs is an author to watch. Her prose alone makes sure of that.
Breakfast Served Anytime by Sarah Combs. Candlewick: 2014. Library copy.