YA coming of age novel about Pen, a Portuguese-American girl who is struggling for a place to fit, being a masculine girl and a lesbian. She hangs out with Colby and some other boys, but Colby’s brand of macho bullshit starts to grate when Pen talks to Olivia, and gets an insight into the harm he does to the girls he picks up and throws aside. Then, when Pen finds Blake, a girl she really likes, she has to define her own way of loving girls and negotiate her own sense of masculinity. In the background, her traditional Portuguese family are making life hard for her and her brother, Johnny, and nothing they do is good enough.
This is a quick read, and pulled me in from the start, especially the creepy friendship with Colby. Girard does a good job of portraying a really messed up power dynamic there. I could relate to tolerating misogyny as a teen, in some mistaken attempt to compensate for gender issues. Pen’s unreconstructed approach to her gender and sexuality stuff felt realistic and believable, and Girard highlights, through the action of the story, a lot of problems with traditional messed up gender roles and relations. Colby is on a massive power trip, and uses women like objects. Olivia ends up pregnant, with no support. Pen’s parents want her to fit in and not attract trouble—to act like a “nice girl”. Throughout, Girard plays with the different ideas of what it means to “man-up”. Even Johnny, Pen’s supportive older brother, still has some stuff to work through around solving problems with violence.
I had a small misgiving that a lot of the issues raised stay implicit, bubbling below the surface of the action, whereas by the end, I wanted some of the characters to be having a more explicit dialogue. I don’t expect a 16 year old character to have everything sussed, but given she goes looking for info online at one point in the story, I would have thought Pen might trip over some gender or feminist theory along the way. I guess, I felt like a bunch of problems were thrown up in the story, but only the most tentative road-map is offered out of them. At one point, Colby sexually assaults Pen, and that’s brushed over and never really named for what it is, even though it’s not shown to be okay. I think there’s a danger in being too subtle about some of this stuff.
My only other misgiving was, the students all attend a Catholic school, and I would have expected at least some of them to have internalised more guilt (about gender, sexuality and abortion). Those internal obstacles are not so easily jumped or reconciled, particularly at 16 when school and family are your whole world. Don’t get me wrong—the characters do have plenty of internalised prejudices, but the religious side is given a very light touch. Maybe there wasn’t space to fully explore those aspects. It was a niggle, rather than a deal breaker.
Overall, I think this book is on point flagging up problems, showing how misogyny and toxic masculinity function in practice, but doesn’t completely follow through with pointing the way to solutions. The characters are well realised, and it’s an enjoyable and compelling read. The relationship between Blake and Pen is sweet and healthy, and there’s no contrived narrative drama thrown in the way to create tension, which I liked. Blake is comfortable with being bi, which is also cool. It’s interesting that Pen never gives herself a gender label, other than girl. I’ve seen a few reviews stick different gender label on her, but it’s not there in the text, so I’m not going to. It’s testament to the complexity of this book that it’s been an absolute pain to review, and I’ve ended up saying so much.