(Facebook group reading challenge.) OK, we’ve got a black, Jewish, bisexual heroine (Little/Suzette), her white, Jewish, straight, bipolar stepbrother (Lion, short for Lionel), her half-black, half-Korean, hearing-impaired male admirer (Emil), her lesbian best friend (DeeDee), the pansexual Latina girl whom both Little and Lion fancy and who’s been disowned by her religious mother for having an abortion (Rafaela), and the girl with whom Suzette had a secret relationship at a posh (lacrosse-playing) boarding school in Massachusetts (Iris). And throw in a bit of Beverly Hills 90210: we’re in an upmarket part of Los Angeles, where schoolkids have swimming pools at their homes and drive around in their own cars.
Incidentally, it’d been years since I’d read a modern American teenage book: I read all the Judy Blumes and Paula Danzigers many moons ago, but it *was* many moons ago!
My initial reaction was that the author’s main aim was, in a very well-intentioned way, to make the cast as diverse as possible, and that the plot was going to be secondary to that; but, to be fair, it wasn’t, and the main characters were well-drawn. However, it kept rather confusingly jumping about between the past and the present, and I could have done without it using so many swear words in the narrative (which stops seeming cool when you’re about 12). The Suzette storyline generally, although far from entirely, worked quite well, though. A lot of it was about the anxieties that teenagers experience about how others will react to them being “different” to the majority – whether that’s ethnicity, religion, sexuality, disability, having a mental health condition, or anything else, and especially when it’s more than one of those things. And just *being* a teenager is complicated.
The Lionel storyline was more problematic. It was great to see an author tackling the issue of mental health conditions in young people, and also saying straight out that the side effects of the tablets can end up making you feel worse than you did to start with. However, I don’t think it was handled too well. First of all, Suzette was sent away to boarding school so she wouldn’t have to cope with Lionel’s illness, and then he came off his tablets and told her but not their parents, so she was stressed out and feeling guilty and didn’t know what to do. So the way it came across was that Lionel’s medical condition was causing huge problems for Suzette. This book’s aimed at secondary school kids. It’s not giving a very helpful message to young readers who may have mental health condition themselves.
I very much appreciated the fact that the author didn’t take the Everyone’s A Racist/Homophobe culture war approach that you come across so often these days, and which is neither true nor helpful, and also the way that she steered well away from tropes. A lot of books show stepfamilies as having problems, but everyone in this family got on brilliantly. And a lot of books show teenagers clashing with their parents, but these parents were lovely. And there was never any concern that they’d react badly to Suzette being bisexual: she knew they’d be fine with it. A posh Massachusetts boarding school might well have been shown as being full of girls whose families all belonged to country clubs which only admitted WASPs. It wasn’t. And it didn’t have a culture of homophobia either. And some authors would have said that Suzette’s mother had been denied opportunities in life because she was black. Not at all: she was a successful woman with a degree from Wellesley.
What we did get, and which was very well-written, was the uncertainties and anxieties of being part of a minority group. In Suzette’s case, three minority groups. Not everyone’s prejudiced against any minority group, but, sadly and indisputably, some people are, and it’s not always obvious who they are. If a security guard was watching her in a shop, was that because it was his job to watch everyone, or is it because she was black? If someone looked at the Star of David on her necklace, was it because they were anti-Semitic, because they thought it was weird that a black girl was wearing a Jewish symbol, or just because they thought it was a pretty necklace and they were admiring it? And what about Lionel – how were people going to react to finding out that he was bipolar, having just been told that he was off school because he was “sick”? Would they treat him differently?
What was she supposed to do when someone said something like “Black people aren’t supposed to be good at swimming”. Pull them up on it or ignore it? That was an interesting scene. What do you do when someone says something like that about a minority group? If you do pull them up on it, are they going to accept that it wasn’t an appropriate thing to say, or are they going to tell you that you’re over-reacting and they didn’t mean anything by it, or that it was a joke and you’ve got no sense of humour, or that you don’t understand English (or American, in this case) irony?
But the main issues were with Suzette herself. There was a lot of talk about how in Los Angeles it was OK to be yourself, whoever you were, but Suzette hadn’t told people that she was bisexual … although that was because she wasn’t 100% sure herself. At school, she hadn’t told anyone that she was Jewish, even though she was sure about that. (Lionel and his father were always Jewish: Suzette and her mother converted.)
And we learned that she and Iris had kept their relationship secret, but that a group of other girls had found them together, a homophobic minority of people had had a go at them and that Iris (for unknown reasons) gave them the impression that she’d taken advantage whilst Suzette was drunk, and that Suzette let everyone believe this, leaving all the other girls to think that Iris was some sort of sex predator. That was problematic. Suzette was the heroine, and presented sympathetically. But the way she’d treated Iris was appalling, and neither the character nor the authorial voice seemed to think that she should be apologising for it, instead of thinking that it was all about her and spending her summer holidays trying to work out whether she preferred Emil, whom she’d been dating, or Rafaela. Even her mum just said that she was sure Iris’d forgive her, rather than pointing out it wasn’t really very nice to let someone get a reputation for being a sex pest just because you didn’t want to tell people that you were bisexual.
The other thing about Suzette that didn’t work was her religion. That was the one “identity” that felt as if it was put in to tick a box – and that was a shame. The specific issues faced by “Jews of colour” were covered in the local press here during the Black Lives Matter protests last year: several people spoke about problems they’d faced because people tend to have an image of a Jewish person as being white, and I don’t know why the author chose to create a black Jewish character but then write so unconvincingly about the religious side of her character. We were told early on that she was very religious and that Judaism was very important to her, whereas Lionel wasn’t really bothered about it, but not once did we not once see her attending a service or marking a religious festival, or having any sort of issue with the fact that none of her three potential partners shared her religion. I could have handled that, but we also saw her turning up at a picnic with prosciutto and cheese – on challah bread! – and then eating grilled shrimp! What on earth?
As for Lionel, he said he’d start talking his tablets again, and the book concluded by saying that that meant that everything’d be OK. And Suzette, even though she was really keen on Emil, decided to go back to the boarding school. Well, I hope that she told everyone that they’d got it wrong about Iris!
I quite enjoyed reading an American teenage novel for the first time in 30-odd years. I loved those Judy Blume books!