Reading The Rainbow is an original regular feature at Musings From Neville’s Navel. I’m a queer bookworm who loves to geek out about books and LGBTQ+ topics, so why not talk about both subjects at once?! Basically, I review books with queer characters and/or themes, discuss the pros and cons of each, and tell you which stories are worth your time!
Author: Meredith Russo
Genre: YA, contemporary, romance
Length: 288 pages
Published by: Flatiron Books
Date of publication: 2016
Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school in Lambertville, Tennessee. Like any other girl, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret. There’s a reason why she transferred schools for her senior year, and why she’s determined not to get too close to anyone.
And then she meets Grant Everett. Grant is unlike anyone she’s ever met – open, honest, kind – and Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself…including her past. But she’s terrified that once she tells Grant the truth, he won’t be able to see past it.
Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It’s that she used to be Andrew.
Previous Reading The Rainbow posts may be found here.
I read If I Was Your Girl as part of Julia Ember’s #ReadProud challenge, which you can read more about here. One of the categories for week one was “trans YA” – either fiction or nonfiction – and since I’d borrowed that book from the library a few days before joining #ReadProud, I decided to read it as part of the challenge.
This is actually the first book I have read about a trans protagonist! I say this not because I want praise – I don’t want to be the sort of ally who does things only for show, so feel free to call me out if I ever start doing that – but because I need to do better. I have a lot of trans books on my TBR list, and a really bad habit of procrastinating all the books on my TBR. I need to diversify the LGBTQ+ books I read!
Anyway, here’s my review of If I Was Your Girl. I didn’t end up loving it as much as I thought I would, but let’s start with the things I did love before moving on to some of the more negative comments.
First of all, yay for #OwnVoices books! If I Was Your Girl was written by a trans woman, and the girl on the front cover is trans too!
This book was very readable – it had a fast-paced plot, a strong narrative voice, and a premise that drew me in and kept me turning page after page. As I have mentioned probably dozens of times on this blog already, I have really struggled to get much reading done lately. (“Lately” being the last, like, year and a half. It’s a real problem.) I manage to stay on track with my homework because I know my grade will suffer if I slack off and don’t do the assigned reading, but I don’t read for fun as much as I used to.
I have trouble focusing on books anymore. I have trouble making time to read books. I have trouble staying awake long enough to read books because by the end of the day, I’m exhausted from all my classes. For all those reasons and more, I expected to space this book out over several days but instead I read it in one afternoon, surprising even myself. It’s a very engaging story!
While I’m on the subject of engaging stories and the state of being surprised, I want to say that I loved the romance in the book. IT’S SUPER HETERO AND THAT IS NOT USUALLY MY THING. I was initially very hesitant to even read this book because of it, but Amanda and Grant were super sweet together! I do have a few issues with things that happened later on in their relationship, but for the majority of the book I had a ridiculous grin on my face.
Amanda and Grant share a love of all things nerdy, especially Star Wars. I thought this was handled superbly. I’ve read too many stories where fandom culture, for lack of a better term, overwhelmed the story to the point where it wasn’t enjoyable to read anymore because every other sentence was the author showing off how many references they could drop and it got in the way of the plot. This story WASN’T that.
(Also? I have a weakness for Han & Leia – they’re one of the few M/F couples I ship really, really hard – and so I’m basically guaranteed to adore any couple that compares themselves to those two.)
As stated in the blurb above, this book is set in Tennessee, and it felt as though the characters truly inhabited that place. I hate it when a book’s setting isn’t developed very well, because it always ends up feeling as though the story could have taken place anywhere. This book, on the other hand, could never be mistaken as anything other than a very Southern story.
And we need more of those in LGBTQ+ lit! So many books in this genre, especially YA, are set on either the east or west coasts. Obviously we need books that take place outside the US too, but it boggles my mind to think about how huge swathes of the US are underrepresented because so many authors place their LGBTQ+ characters in cities. Rural queer folk don’t get to see themselves very often in stories.
Typing that last sentence made me realize that that must be why this book reminded me of my favorite book, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth, because other than that the two stories have no real similarities. Both stories are about being a closeted teen in small-town America, and I can relate to both.
It wasn’t apparent from the blurb that Amanda is not the only LGBTQ+ person in this book, so I was delighted to find other queer characters! I despise stories about LGBTQ+ people surrounded entirely by cis straight people – the only way I accept them is if the story itself reflects on why that is so. I mean, sometimes people are so deeply closeted and/or sheltered that they truly don’t know any other queer people. But many of us do know at least a few other people like ourselves, so I give this book points for being realistic in that regard.
In the last few pages of this novel, one of Amanda’s (straight) friends says some incredibly hurtful things which basically boil down to the idea that being trans is a sin but that since we’re all sinners anyway, why does it matter? This is a HORRIBLE and transphobic line of thought, and I almost closed the book at that point, but on the very next page another girl called her out on it and… that just made me so happy, you guys. It makes me so uncomfortable when a character expresses a horrible opinion – whether it’s sexist, homophobic, et cetera – and then it’s never addressed in the context of the narrative as being wrong.
It is at this point in my review that I turn from the things I did like to the things I didn’t. I originally thought this book would get a solid four-star rating from me up until the last sixty pages or so, and then it kind of fell to pieces.
This may be the first book with a trans protagonist that I have ever read, but I’m familiar with some of the tropes of trans stories both real and fictional. Grant finds out that Amanda is trans towards the end of the novel, and… well, he doesn’t freak out as much as some of the other characters, but he still freaks out. This is a very common narrative, where the straight guy starts asking invasive questions about body parts and freaking out because he thinks this makes him gay.
And it disappointed me to see the story go there, in that direction. I also don’t feel that Grant’s actions there were consistent with how he was characterized throughout the rest of the book as one of the few truly accepting, kind, and respectful people in their small town.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I wish the ending had been happier. I’ve talked before about how often lesbian characters are murdered on television, but LGBTQ+ characters in general don’t get a lot of positive representation. I don’t feel that the ending of this book was particularly consistent with everything that came before it, because the rest of the book was gloriously happy escapism and the ending just… wasn’t.
The ending was left ambiguous, and while I personally have chosen to hope for the best and interpret it as a positive one, I wish it had been definitively positive. We need more stories that aren’t like, “Well, if you squint just so, it looks kinda positive, doesn’t it? Maybe?”
At the same time, though, it’s significant to remember that a trans woman wrote this book. One of my upcoming posts is actually going to be about this idea – namely, that marginalized groups of people writing unhappy stories about people like themselves have a better understanding of the issues and so include more nuance in their stories.
I’m open to the idea that my thoughts may be off-kilter here, and I welcome any constructive criticism! Like, one thing I’ve been trying to keep in mind is that it’s very important for our stories to reflect reality in some way, and so in this review I’m trying to balance that with the idea that it is possible to do such a thing while also giving people happy endings. I hope I did a good job of that, but you tell me.
I would recommend this book to…
- Anyone looking for a fast read
- Those who are looking for cute YA contemporary romances that are a little different from the standard cis straight fare
- Readers who love well-developed settings
My thoughts about this book are all jumbled right now, and I apologize if this review turned out that way too. Ultimately, I’m glad I read this book, but at the same time… it was a bit of a confusing read for me, because I was sure that I was going to give it four stars, which is an unusually high rating for me, and yet in the end I changed my mind. This is a better-than-average story, to be sure, but not perfect.