Sunday, 27 November 2016

If I Was Your Girl

I was browsing in an airport bookshop lately, and noticed the cover of this book, If I Was Your Girl, by Meredith Russo. The book was displayed reasonably prominently, and was featured as part of the Zoella book club, as a work of fiction for young adults (which is what they are calling teenagers these days, apparently).

If I were your girl: subjunctive, people!
Normally I wouldn't be too interested in fiction for young adults. When I was a young adult myself, I just read fiction for adults. My sister used to read books by Judy Blume, and she would usually show me the juicy parts. These astonished me in two ways. They astonished me because these were books marketed at teenagers, containing detailed descriptions of sexual activity that would likely cause many parents (including ours) to have conniptions. Second, they astonished me because they were depicting a world where teenagers seemed to have no trouble having sex; lots of sex. This seemed like a glimpse into some alien world. As a teenager who was having real trouble finding someone willing even to snog me, reading the books made me feel envious and uncomfortable.

Now that I am an adult, I don't see any reason to read young adult fiction at all. Unless it seems to feature the transgender flag on the cover, which is what drew my eye.

Naturally I bought it, and read it on the flight, all the way through. And now I thought I would write a review of it.

The book centres around the life of Amanda, an 18-yr old girl in her final year of high school. She joins a new school, and falls in love with Grant, a football player. The hook (at least from a transgender point of view) is that Amanda used to be Andrew. Their relationship goes through some ups and downs, before the big reveal, and the aftermath.

I read to the end of the book before I realised that the author herself, Meredith Russo, is a transwoman. She even includes a page of comments for cisgendered readers, as well as another page of comments for transgendered readers. She explains some of the fictional devices she required to use to make the story work. One obvious one is that nobody ever doubts or guesses Amanda's trans nature, because she is already "fully formed": post-surgery, post-hormones, and with a completely realistic face and body. Russo admits this is pretty unrealistic, and I am pleased that she did; for me it was one of the most difficult parts of the story to accept.

Meredith Russo
Russo was raised in Tennessee, and sets the story in a district she is familiar with. I can't help associating that region of the southern United States with God-fearin', gun-totin', Republican-votin' good-ole-boys. To be a transgender child growing up in that environment would be, no doubt, exceptionally difficult, lonely and painful. Amanda, our protagonist, is exposed to a series of very unpleasant events: parental rejection, violent beatings at school (where she is considered to be gay by the other students), and a failed suicide attempt. These events are described starkly (in a series of flashbacks), and the writing is powerful. I dare say they will resonate with young adults who feel different (for any reason), isolated and desperate. Even I got a few pangs.
I brought my wrist up to my chest and looked down. The identification bracelet said my name was Andrew Hardy. If I died, I realized, Andrew would be the name they would put on my tombstone. I thought of the words I wrote down for the counsellor: I should have been a girl.
Amanda begins to settle into her new school, and begins to make friends. She is pleased and gratified to find that she is accepted, though this pleasure is tempered with the knowledge that, if the truth of her background were known, she would surely be rejected.
The cicadas buzzed persistently in the growing dusk. I had read once that they lived underground for most of their lives, only emerging as adults to live out their final days. Was that going to be me? Was I going to live underground for the better part of my life, never coming out into the world? (...) I wondered if joy could ever be felt by itself without being tainted with fear and confusion, or if some level of misery was a universal constant, like the speed of light.
Trans model Kira Conley on the US cover
The parts of the story with which I found most resonance are where Amanda discovers her trans identity, and meets other trans people for the first time. She is mentored in her early journey by Virginia, who introduces her to members of her local transgender support group.
A woman with broad shoulders and a faint shadow of a beard under her make-up entered next. She looked strong and stout, but the longer I looked, the more I saw the beauty in her--here a light step, here a brief touch of the hair, here a wide, open smile. Boone said, "Evening, Rhonda," to greet her.
This resonates with me because of my preoccupation with how people see Vivienne. Since I started my journey, I have come out to a couple of dozen people, and they have all been complimentary about my appearance, even the ones who met Vivienne face to face. But did they have to make an effort to see past the man in the dress to really see Vivienne? And how much of an effort did they make?
I looked Virginia up and down and saw two separate people. One was the beautiful, statuesque angel who had been there to guide me through some of the hardest steps of my transition. The other was a woman with a jaw just a little too strong, forehead just a little too high, shoulders just a little too wide, and hands just a little too big.
Without giving the story away, Amanda begins to find fulfilment and happiness in her new life. Her relationship with her parents improves. She realises other students have their secrets too: one girl takes drugs; another is a lesbian. For me, Amanda's parents and schoolmates are somewhat simple and one-dimensional. Grant, the love interest, is more interesting, though again he is cast as someone who is all goodness: good-looking, pleasant, sensitive, humble, hard-working, popular, kind to his family. The most interestingly subtle character (Amanda aside) is the villain, Parker, another student, whose complex feelings and motives are explored.
His shadow stretched out past mine. I remembered Mom telling me how frightening men were, all men really, how helpless it often felt to be a woman among men, and for the first time I understood what she meant.
The romantic aspects of the plot are well-drawn: the breathless first kiss, and other faltering steps as the relationship between Grant and Amanda begins to play out. I am relieved beyond measure to report that Judy Blume's intimate depictions are largely absent. Though the book doesn't insult its readers by pretending everyone is a virgin when they leave high school, the sexual content is handled deftly and with subtlety, just as (in my opinion) it ought to be.

So in summary, what can I say about the book? I cannot judge it as a piece of young adult fiction, since I have so little knowledge of that genre with which to compare it. I have a friend who writes romantic fiction for a living, and she tells me there is a remarkably strict pattern that her books are expected to follow. I hope the same is not true of young adult fiction, but I wouldn't be surprised (only disappointed) to find that there is. Overall, I think the story is compelling enough, and readable enough (certainly I didn't get bored or struggle to finish it). I think some of the characters are a bit flat. I think that the story of Amanda's life is told with enough sympathy and emotional resonance that transgendered readers (like me) will find much to resonate with, and there is a reasonably positive ending to look forward to.

Blazing the trail: Luna in 2004
Russo clearly hopes that cisgendered young adults will also read the book and come away with more awareness and more sympathy towards transgendered people (of all ages). And it's this, I think, which holds the book back slightly for me. It just has a hint of being slightly contrived for this purpose; as if Amanda's relationship with Grant is shown to be completely pure and perfect to show just how much of a real girl Amanda actually is.

Nonetheless, Russo deserves encouragement. I think this book represents one more snowflake in the blizzard of transgender-related material in the popular media, to which we are now exposed, and it can only do us good to get more exposure, more sympathy and more conversations started. This is Russo's first book, and I hope she writes many more. I also hope that she isn't the "token trans writer" when young adult fiction is considered.

And there are very few other similar books out there. One which Russo mentions is Luna, by Julie Anne Peters. Another is a book which I have touched on before on this blog, Boy2Girl by Terence Blacker. To my knowledge, neither Peters nor Blacker are transgendered, and both have had success with many other books; therefore they are not as brave as Russo. They can afford to experiment with new themes, while Russo has put all her chips on this debut novel. Thankfully it seems to have gone down very well, and it has favourable reviews on GoodReads and Amazon, but the Guardian reviewer (like me) had some reservations.

I haven't read Luna, but I will order it and let you know my thoughts in due course. Meanwhile, I recommend that you get hold of If I Was Your Girl and give it a read. Or perhaps wave it under the nose of a nearby young adult for their comments. And yours, of course, are always welcome below.

4 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. If only that were true, Iain!
      😉

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  2. I thought this might be a version on Prince's song "If I Was Your Girlfriend", but no ;)

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    Replies
    1. I don't know that particular song. I shall take a look!

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