Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.
My Summary: Life at Paloma High School is much like any other high school, with petty drama, judgmental assholes, and mind-numbing schoolwork. Until it isn’t. A scandal emerges: a student and teacher had an illicit affair. At the center of the scandal are seven teenagers, each with their own secrets, whose lives are transformed as a result of this scandal.
The magic of this book for me was how I was able to relate to each of the seven characters in some way, even though they’re all so different. For Olivia, it was knowing people talk behind my back (for the opposite reason though–people found it so inconceivable that I might hook up/date a dude that they actively matchmade me with random dudes as a joke) and missing my mom (my mom passed away recently) and feeling that emptiness where she used to be. With Claire it’s the constant comparisons between myself and the people around me (I tend to surround myself with high achievers) and feeling like I’m never good enough. For Lucas, it’s being bi/pan(+non-binary) and feeling too scared to come out to most people because I don’t want to have the conversation with people about what it means, and also liking someone who doesn’t/can’t reciprocate. With Juniper, it was being perceived as perfect while hiding my pain and struggles (my mom was diagnosed with leukemia my senior year and I graduated valedictorian). For Valentine, it was the feeling of isolation and not quite believing that people see me as anything other than a freak or oddity. With Matt it’s the feeling that I’m not really as grown up or independent as I like to think so I feel uncertain. And for Kat, it was the hiding, the sleeping in, the missed meals, the anger, the addiction to something that helped me escape, i.e. the depression and how it completely destroyed my life.
There is tension, suspense, climax, etc. to make the book compelling from a plot perspective, but what really stood out to me was the characterization: how distinct and human they were and how they grew and changed throughout the course of the narrative. They came out the other end of the events with some closure and new understanding of themselves, and that was the most satisfying thing to read.
There were several other things I appreciated about the book. One is the calling out of misogynistic double standards when it comes to sexuality and the slut-shaming that women who dare to exercise their sexual agency face. Many people look down on Olivia for having one-night stands with multiple guys but some of the dudes among those same people get angry at her when she exercises her right to say no to them. It illustrates very clearly the lose-lose situation girls/women deal with when it comes to sex: if you say yes, you’re a slut; if you say no, you’re a bitch.
Another thing is the use of Spanish throughout the book. One of the main characters, Matt, is half-Mexican, and speaks Spanish with his mom. Another character, Lucas, is taking Spanish and his teacher expects him to use Spanish in the classroom and addresses him in Spanish. And all the accent marks are in the right place and the upside-down question mark is used at the beginning of a question mark and so on. But what’s truly noteworthy about the use of Spanish in this book is that there are no translations provided. That’s a big deal.
Typically, authors and editors assume that the audience for a book in the U.S. is white, monolingual English-speakers, who therefore need translations for any non-English language. Providing translations effectively centers whiteness. That said, although there are no translations, even those who don’t understand Spanish should still be able to follow what’s being said through context clues. I might be wrong though because I happen to understand Spanish myself (took six years of it and studied abroad in Spain). I was able to follow along and had to go back and check to see if there were translations because I hadn’t noticed when I first read those parts.
On a related note, one of the characters has the last name García, and his name always has the accent mark on the i. Diacritical marks are essential to languages that use them to denote stress, tone, etc., so seeing this aspect of orthography respected in publishing is nice. Especially since I’m a linguistics nerd myself.
Finally, the last thing I wanted to comment on was the definition and explanation of pansexuality and non-binary gender used in the book. While it’s awesome to have pan representation, there was problematic language. Specifically, the distinction between bi and pan is drawn at pan people being attracted to non-binary people. While there are differences between how bi- and pansexual/romantic are used and defined, it’s actually a misconception that bisexual/biromantic inherently excludes non-binary people and only refers to attraction to men and women. Although “attracted to men and women” is a common understanding/usage of bi, it’s not the only one. Bi, for a lot of people, means other things, such as a) being attracted to two or more genders (e.g. women and non-binary people but not men), b) being attracted to two types of genders in relation to one’s own gender (e.g. same gender and different gender), etc.
As for the definition of non-binary gender and gender in general, I’m referring to this passage:
“What are you talking about, other genders?”
“Well, gender’s something society made up. I don’t mean, like, biological sex–that’s a different thing.”
While this correctly points out that gender is socially constructed, the comment about biological sex reinforces biological essentialism, or the notion that sex is an objective and indisputable designation. In fact, biological sex is as much socially constructed as gender. (Recommended reading: Sexing the Body by Anne Fausto-Sterling, Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex by Alice Domurat Dreger.) This is why saying a trans person is “born as x” (instead of “assigned x at birth”) is problematic.
Wait, one last thing. One of the characters can be read as asexual (and possibly neurodiverse). He never explicitly labels himself as such, but the way he describes his experiences of [non-]attraction strongly point to him being on the ace spectrum. Which is cool because I’m bi/pan but gray-ace/demi, so I get some representation in more than one way.
Recommendation: If you’re looking for a book that explores the struggles and nuances of the adolescent/human experience, this is your book.
P.S. I really love the cover design and I’m glad I got the hardcover version instead of waiting for the paperback like I originally intended.