Over the past few years, young adult fiction has made significant strides in representing LGBT teens. This month, we review three young adult books with lesbian story lines: Sara Ryan’s family drama, The Rules for Hearts; Julie Anne Peters’ short story collection, grl2grl; and Nancy Garden’s classic love story, Annie on My Mind.
The Rules for Hearts by Sara Ryan (Viking)
Sara Ryan’s new novel, The Rules for Hearts, a sequel to her 2001 novel Empress of the World, is organized as a five-act play, including a cast list and chapters that are divided into acts and scenes. The story is told from the perspective of Battle Hall Davies ("18-year-old high school graduate, accepted to Reed College") as she goes in search of her brother and self.
In a short prologue, we discover that Nick Davies ("22, Battle ‘s older brother, a cab driver") ran away from home as a teenager. Following a traditional five-act play, Act I begins five years later as Battle, who unbeknownst to her parents has recently been in touch with Nick over the internet, moves across the country to spend her summer before college living with her brother.
Nick rents a room in a house with a host of characters who are all part of a theater troupe run by Aurora, their landlord. In an attempt to fit in and to spend more time with her brother, Battle auditions for and gets the part of Helena in their upcoming play, a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Still, as the summer continues, so does Battle’s profound loneliness. She is lying to her parents and beginning to feel the tension of her deceit. Shortly after she arrives, she discovers that the brother she once admired is a charlatan. She begins a tentative relationship with one of the roommates, the free-spirited Meryl Davenport ("22, swimming instructor"), but that too is rife with problems.
Interspersed is the story of Nicola Lancaster, Battle’s ex-girlfriend. Though it is not necessarily clear how this relationship informs the present, the flashback scenes of first love are tender — "I’m replaying the night she and I spent in the woods, figuring out how to fit ourselves together."
Of all the relationships, Battle and Nick’s is the most interesting and complex. But, for whatever reason, Nick remains a bit of a mystery throughout the entire book: Though his sexuality is fluid (he has slept with both men and women from the group, including Meryl), he avoids any and all romantic attachments; his sense of ethics is dubious, as he holds others to higher standards than he does himself; he has invited his sister to spend the summer with him, but essentially abandons her the moment she arrives.
The looming question to Nick’s enigmatic character — and that is not explored enough — is why he ran away from home in the first place. In Battle ‘s attempt to figure out her brother, it seems that this is an important matter to consider. Nonetheless, The Rules for Hearts is a compelling book about the mysterious of love and family — and the near impossible attempt to understand both.
grl2grl by Julie Anne Peters (Little, Brown)
There is something for everyone in National Book Award finalist Julie Anne Peters’ grl2grl, a collection of short fiction. Each of the 10 stories explores the life of a young lesbian — whether she is dealing with family, friends, school or the multilayered process of accepting her sexuality.
Some of the stories that stand out include "Passengers," a piece about two high school students whose only communication comes via eye contact. "I don’t look away," says the narrator. "Every day we have this stare down. Ten, twenty seconds. We never talk or say hello. I’m not sure she even knows my name."
Finally, she invites the girl to talk, and the two end up in a closet — an actual closet — during lunch hour. The conversation that ensues is as awkward as it is endearing; imagine Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy falling for each other in The Breakfast Club.
In "Can’t Stop the Feeling," Mariah spends her days trying to conjure up the courage to attend a Gay/Straight Alliance meeting at her high school. She is not only anxious about showing up and being seen at such a gathering, she’s absolutely horrified by what’s motivating her to attend in the first place: "End of the world. That’s what it felt like. I couldn’t be gay. It was against everything I knew, everything I believed." If only.
But not all of the characters in this collection are struggling with the process of coming out; some have crossed that frightening hurdle and are now ready to find love. In "After Alex," Rachel thought she had done just that until she catches her girlfriend cheating on her with an ex-girlfriend. When Alex apologizes and says she wants to get back together, it sends Rachel into a tailspin that her friends try but fail to manage.
"Abstinence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder" begins in a health class during a conversation on "sex ed." When Aimee asks how abstinence works for queer kids if they are never allowed to get married (a reasonable question), her teacher responds, "I guess that’s between you and your god." The experience has the unintended effect of reuniting Aimee with Peyton, her estranged best friend from childhood.
There are some moments in the book that feel a bit overwrought ("Her eyes penetrated my soul") and conversations that seem overly advanced for adolescents (think Dawson’s Creek), but overall the book includes a wide range of experiences from the perspectives of young lesbians. It’s an entertaining read.