I read this as part of a daisy review chain, and I want to apologize profusely to the author: I saw only that it was “historical fiction,” which in general I like. I ought to have read the sample before committing to reviewing this, because then I would have never picked this.
I had 3 weeks to read this, and that’s probably the only reason I managed to make it all the way through. I had to take periodic breaks to write and write and write about how angry I was, then take a break from the book for a few days before picking it up again.
First off, let me say that there was a lot to like about this book. It is well-written. I liked many of the supporting characters. The main character Angie is very human, well-rounded with flaws and struggles that I could see many teenagers identifying with. It’s an old school teen drama, where the cheerleading squad and football team are seen as high school royalty, to the detriment of the students who don’t fit those molds. Angie is a girl torn between who she thinks she’s supposed to be, and who she’s actually comfortable being. It is a multi-faceted coming of age story.
I did not enjoy most of it, but this book was not written for me.
The review below will contain spoilers.
Now, this is a sensitive topic, and I understand that not everyone will agree with me. What I am sharing here is MY EXPERIENCE, and MY OPINION. No more, no less.
When the main character of a first person POV novel is a teenager telling her side of things in constant internal monologues, liking the book hinges mostly on whether or not the reader can identify with this character. Throw racism into the mix, in which this POV character is of the race doing the oppression, but believes it to be wrong, and things get even more complicated, because strong feelings are involved. This may work well for a reader who identifies with Angie more than Valerie.
I do not. In fact, I deeply dislike Angie for one simple reason.
First, let me share some facts about myself:
- I attended preschool in a very white town in Massachusetts. I am mixed race, of darker skin. After a “we’re all different, we’re all the same” session intended to teach that the color of one’s skin doesn’t matter, I internalized that I was different because I was dark, and that this was bad. I longed to be white.
- I attended Kindergarten and elementary school in Japan, to my knowledge the only visible minority in the entire school for most of those years. I was bullied.
- I attended a very white high school in New York state. It was here that I finally learned an important lesson: the friends that last are the ones who start out not caring what I look like or where I’m from. The ones who start out seeing me for my background never last.
- My mother, after over a decade of being a visible minority in Japan and India, was an activist advocating for diversity in the tech industry, and trying to make known the plight of visible minorities.
- My sisters, both of even darker skin than I, have shared with me many, many problems that they encounter in their dominantly white universities. Often, these problems involve people who consider themselves liberal but have never experienced racism themselves trying to be “friendly” in a way that makes it clear that they don’t see past the color of their skin, and expressing hurt and confusion when my sisters react with anger.
Now, allow me to share a few early parts of the book where Angie thinks about or interacts with her black classmate Valerie:
“I had a fleeting mental image of a black student thanking me as I returned the bag.”
“I was doubly, triply, quadruply, even quintuply glad I was white. Who’d want a roomful of strangers giving you the evil eye on the first day of school after being humiliated on the front lawn by a bunch of brainless bullies?”
“I’d done my duty by speaking to the black girl.”
And last, the dialogue between Valerie and Angie that precedes the last statement:
Angie: “Who’d you choose?”
Valerie: “Mother Jones. And you?”
Angie: “Susan B. Anthony.”
Valerie: “Oh, you’ll enjoy reading about her.”
Firstly, Angie has a white savior complex. She wants to help the downtrodden black student not because the way Valerie is being treated is horrifying and unjust, but because she wants to be venerated for doing what she already ostensibly knows is the right thing―which, by the way, she doesn’t even do. When she eventually does befriend and try to help Valerie, Angie does so independently, going to the principal on her own despite Valerie’s statement that she would rather do nothing because she is frightened of making it worse. Certainly, that one complaint can’t fix an unjust system is a valuable lesson for Angie. But Valerie is the one who suffers from the injustice of this system, yet her struggles are portrayed as largely passive, so it can come off as if she barely has a role in her own arc; as if she is for the most part a vehicle that Angie and Stan must steer to safety.
This is exacerbated at the end of the book, when the bombing of Valerie’s house is portrayed as Angie’s “comeuppance” for mixing with blacks. This could have been social commentary, if only Angie hadn’t been treating Valerie in a similar vein for the first half of the book.
Secondly, Angie’s view on the racism she observes is, to my eye, comedically childish. This high school girl has the same mentality regarding skin color as I did at age four.
At this point, I was already wary and terrified of a friendship developing between these two, because this had become a double edged sword. If their relationship didn’t develop, then Angie wouldn’t grow in her understanding, which I would not like. But if their relationship did develop, and they became friends, I would be inclined to distrust a friendship that began with one party reducing the other to her skin color. At this point, there was only one possible storyline that would have satisfied me, and it wasn’t the one that played out.
And third, which for me was the final straw, that dialogue. Let me be clear: by itself, nothing is wrong with that dialogue in and of itself. But combined with all the other factors, and adding to that that this is the first time that Angie and Valerie ever speak, the only meaningful part of this exchange is Valerie indicating that she admires Susan B. Anthony so much that she is certain that this unknown classmate of hers will enjoy reading about her, too. Yet…why is this one and only piece of personality that the black girl likes the anti-slavery activist?
To me, this skirts dangerously close to not only the character Angie reducing the character Valerie down to her skin color, but the story itself doing the same.
Again, I understand that this is personal opinion. I understand that the world was a different place in the 1960s, where my modern sensibilities may be asking too much. I understand that by someone else’s metric, none of this would matter, because at least Angie is trying. She is a flawed teenage girl learning to be better in an unjust world and she doesn’t always succeed or do the thing she should, and that’s okay.
I don’t claim she’s horrible. She simply happens to think in a way that I particularly dislike.
My lack of enjoyment reading this book at any given moment was directly proportional to my proximity to any section dealing with Valerie. When other storylines would take over and Valerie would leave the story for awhile, I would sometimes almost begin enjoying the book―only to be reminded that I didn’t when the Valerie storyline reappeared.
If I carefully excised this one tumor out of my opinion of Angie, I’d say that she was a pretty decent girl. Still not my cup of tea, but I would have been able to enjoy more of the book, at least.
Here are some things I would have enjoyed:
The love story, despite on the surface being a love triangle (generally I’m not a fan) was extremely well-written. The focus, for most of the book, was not on the relationships, but on Angie and her growth as a person, which was decently executed. I say most of the book, because in the last quarter, the focus shifts from Angie’s development as a person onto the horrible actions of her boyfriend, creating a black-and-white scenario to end that relationship. Said black-and-white scenario is date rape, which took place too late in the book to show any truly deep scars left on Angie’s psyche, leaving me torn on how to feel about this.
Dr. Kelley. She’s a cliche, yes, and I did feel a little guilty for liking her so much despite knowing what a cliche she was. I enjoyed her all the same.
The family dynamics. Angie’s turbulent relationships with her father out in Vietnam, with her appearance-obsessed mother, with her hotter cheerleader sister Deedee… These were, I felt, the best part of the book.
Here are some of the problems I would still have had with the book:
At points, the narration―in first person, so ostensibly from Angie’s perspective―seemed a little too self-aware, which felt dissonant with Angie’s state of mind.
I’m not a fan of the sort of conflict where one character says something not meant to be insulting, another character takes it as an insult and gets mad, and the first character realizes that he/she was wrong and apologizes profusely while being berated by the second character. Regardless of how much I agree or disagree with the characters, the dynamic is too one-sided for me.
Angie’s obliviousness was at some points baffling to me―such as when she “forgot to practice” the routine the cheerleading tryouts, which she believes is crucial to a good high school experience, about which her mother has bugged her once a week, all summer… Sure, she herself isn’t quite into cheerleading and her view on the subject is imposed on her by her mother and sister. Even so, that much fixation on the subject, and she never practiced once? The fact that she can simultaneously strongly believe it’s important and yet at the same time completely fail to act in a way that would befit that belief bewilders me.
But this is a very human thing. Not something I like to see in people, but it is human. All of this serves to demonstrate how very human Angie is, for better or for worse. It was for the worse, to me. The other reviews are proof that for many other readers, it was for the better. Such is humanity.
I’m also just a little too literal-minded (math-minded? But I wouldn’t call myself that) for passages like this:
If 10 over “x” equals the jayvee cheerleading squad and 50 over “y” equals the varsity football team, then how can “y” date “z”, who looks like a cheerleader, but isn’t?
This made me stop and stare and read and reread, trying to understand what any of this amounted to. (As far as I can tell, it means nothing beyond the obvious, though I’d be happy to be proven wrong.)
So, all in all—not something I’ll be recommending anytime soon. I’m of the wrong demographic and the wrong mindset for this book. But it was a shame—the book was well-written and certainly achieved being an edgy teenage romance.