Your New School Library: Julie Anne Peters, Alex Sanchez, and Emily Franklin

 
 

“Your New School Library” is a column of book reviews that will highlight the expanding role of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and strong female characters in literature for children and young adults today. Once a month, we’ll tell you about books that help young girls be awesome.

While the three books I chose for this month’s column are all quite different, they do have a few things in common. One, they all cover issues I had never seen queer YA lit really cover in depth before. And for the most part, the writing styles of each rank closer to what is “typically” considered to be YA. Although saying that does cause me to cringe slightly, as I don’t think there’s anything really “typical” about this genre and the writing within it, but alas. I want to give fair warning that there’s perhaps less Emily Danforth lyricism here, but more appeal to reluctant young readers who need to hear these stories. So if you’re already a YA skeptic, it’s safe to say you can probably skip these. But if you’re a teenager, these stories could provide immeasurable comfort, and that’s what’s important. Let’s start with the most intense.

Rage: A Love Story, Julie Anne Peters; Knopf/Random House, 2009.


Julie Anne Peters has been one of the most prolific lesbian YA writers for well over a decade now, and while I always enjoy her books, typically full of diverse characters and sweet storylines and a decent amount of sexytimes, I’ve never viewed them to be particularly earth-shaking. While they often deal with tough issues, they’re quick, satisfying reads. Yet Rage: A Love Story already seemed different before I even started reading, if even from the title and cover alone, both of which I think are brilliant. The dedication at the front of the book also reads intriguingly: “To Alyson Lacoste, who asked me to write this book and I said, ‘No. Absolutely not.’ Alyson is a very persuasive young woman.” 1) That is a strong reaction to have to a book idea, and 2) Can I hire someone to give me book ideas?

This novel is a few years old, but after I finally got down to reading it this winter, I thought about it for days.

[Trigger warning for this entire review.]

This is a story about abuse. It’s about abuse in a number of ways, from and between all different kinds of people who are supposed to love us better. Our protagonist is Johanna, a high school senior about to graduate who’s recovering from the deaths of both of her parents, both of which she had to separately handle on her own. Instead of focusing on her grief, though, she mainly chooses to obsess over Reeve, the Out and Experienced Bad Girl Lesbian of her dreams. An opportunity falls into Johanna’s lap in a strange way: she’s been assigned to tutor Johanna’s brother, Robbie, a physically daunting young man dealing with mental illness. As Reeve and Johanna slowly start to come closer together, you’re not sure whether Robbie was born differently abled, or if his condition is trauma-induced. He and Reeve live in a chaotic, violent, abusive household, one that’s horrifying to witness. It’s also the reason that Johanna forgives Reeve for the marks she starts to leave on her arms, for all the shoves and pushes and sudden mood swings. She will not be intimidated by Reeve’s troubled life, and her often upsetting actions. Johanna needs to protect her. And Reeve doesn’t mean it. They love each other, and that is the most important thing, above all else.

Other characters come into play as well, such as Johanna’s distant older sister and her “best friend” who’s going through her own troubles, both of whom Johanna continues to push away from, frequently for no reason at all other than the fact that they could threaten to stand in the way of her and Reeve’s love. After a few chapters, your first thought starts to be, “Heeyy, so these are a lot of people with a lot of issues,” yet they’re all real people, and there’s still good in all of them. Johanna seems to be the most independent of the bunch: she works hard at her part-time job and spends her spare time comforting old people at a nursing home, for Pete’s sake.

Yet as the story unfolds, you become unsure who you’re supposed to be more frustrated with: Reeve, or Johanna herself for her clearly unbalanced, singular obsession with their relationship. The villain and the victim are not black and white, and both elicit sympathy at various points. And while you know their relationship is unhealthy, you still feel the spark between them that makes part of you, somehow, still want to hold out hope for a happy, sexy life for them, as in Johanna’s oft-imagined “joyland.”

But in such a volatile environment, it’s inevitable that the center cannot hold, and things fall apart, in devastating ways. Not only is this an important book for victims of abuse, either domestic, parental, or even between friends, but it helps shatter that weird myth that somehow still exists, that lesbians don’t suffer abuse like straight couples do. (You know, because females are so naturally nurturing and gentle and stuff.) While haunting, this book still offers threads of hope, and it’s essential that it exists.

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