My favorite thing about this YA/New Adult novel is how meta it is. An I-think-cisgender-but-I-can’t-remember-why-I-think-so-or-did-I-just-assume-this? author writing about a transgender character and a cisgender character who is telling people she is transgender. I loved Gold’s previous novel Being Emily, and the main characters Emily and Claire appear in this book... and they have written a memoir called Being Emily. It’s Emily-ception, my head is exploding!
So this story takes place at a college in Ohio and has two main characters: Ella, a geeky, femme, rich gamer/science girl who is transgender and bi/questioning, and Tucker, a feisty, lefty, working-class butch Humanities girl who is cisgender and an out lesbian. Because she has kind of a hero complex, Tucker decides to defend/protect the unknown trans girl in her dorm by saying she Tucker is that girl, and then she becomes the target of a lot of transphobic abuse on campus. In this way the author sidesteps the seemingly-obligatory violence-against-trans-teen scene by making it happen to someone else. (I say seemingly-obligatory because it’s very very common in YA with transgender characters, and I get why that is, but it harshes my mellow, and any change is as good as a holiday.) It’s certainly a way out I would never have thought of in a hundred years. However, the burden has just shifted over to poor Tucker. TW for violence, dating violence and sexual assault.
Anyway, Tucker and Ella become friends, then roommates, then closer friends, and then some sparks fly between them... but the romantic element of this book is a lot more complicated and realistic than this partial synopsis suggests, which is part of the awesomeness. Actually the romance/love triangle element reminded me of Adaptation by Malinda Lo. And there’s a part where Ella and Tucker and their friends use gaming for activism, which reminded me of Cory Doctorow. Since I love Malinda Lo and Cory Doctorow, this is some pretty high praise. But speaking of the romantic element, it gets pretty spicy, in a good way, but that plus the college milieu makes it more NA than YA, and not something that most people would feel comfortable having their grandmother read over their shoulder.
I’m going to get a bit more spoiler-y here. There are a lot of things in this book that were potential hazards but were very delicately and tastefully handled. And then a few other places in the book where I could pick it apart and complain about why did the author use this word or that word. But you know what, that’s the easiest kind of book review to write, and kind of boring, and I’m sure someone else out there has got it covered. The one thing that I did want to mention that seemed a little facile to me was that after one of the characters is raped, everyone universally urges her to report it to the campus authorities, and I definitely see two points of view about that. Then there’s a pretty swift and fair process of justice and the rapist ends up being expelled. That is so not how things happened in sexual assault cases at my university in the late nineties, and I’d like to think things have changed so much, but it’s kind of hard to believe. But I’m the one who doesn’t want uber-depressing books for QUILTBAG youth so why am I complaining?
Overall, despite the slew of bad things that happen in this book, there’s a real sense that everyone is basically “good people” and this is shown in a lot of ways. There are a lot of people who don’t know anything about transgender issues, and then they are educated, and then they are allies, as simple as that. Or there are a couple characters who are in conflict with our main characters, but then they realize they have common interests or it was all kind of a miscommunication. Two people who have both been abused by the same person have been pitted against each other in the past, but once they realize, they immediately help each other. Everyone is so nice except for a few baddies who are cartoonishly evil. (Honestly, I love characters like that; I know it’s not supposed to be good writing but I think that’s just a fad and evil characters are my favorite.) This “niceness” also manifests in a couple ways which seem more negative to me. There’s a neat character Nico who is genderqueer who is Ella’s friend, and when Ella’s new friends at the university meet Nico, they will not stop trying to find out what gender Nico was originally assigned. This is never revealed, which I thought was great. But, to me, the friends’ nonstop questioning was pretty horrible. But Nico doesn’t care. Actually all the characters are ready to educate anyone at any moment and they don’t mind being questioned. Then for the whole book I was waiting for someone to say to Tucker something like, I understand you mean well and you were trying to be noble, but it’s not cool to appropriate an identity that is not your own. This never ever happened. It was all, Thank you, Tucker, you’re so great. In general, I really really like it when my expectations for a novel are thwarted and the plot does not go the way I expected, and this happened bigtime here, so I take my hat off to Rachel Gold for all this. Finally I decided that this weird quality I couldn’t understand where everyone is so nice and eager to educate each other is because... they are from Ohio. People do NOT behave like this in downstate New York, no way no how. But maybe people are really like that in the Midwest?
Theme song for this book? I am going to have to come back to this later because I am really really drawing a blank.