Sadly, this lovely cover is not used on the UK edition.
If I was Your Girl is a YA coming out romance about a trans girl, Amanda. After Amanda is attacked in a public toilet by the father of a fellow student, her mother and father decide it would be better if she make a clean break and move in with her father in a different town. Things start off well for Amanda—she makes new friends, and meets a boy who she really likes, and who really likes her. But things aren’t so simple: she’s scared that people will find out her past, that she’ll be the victim of more violence. At the same time, she’d really like to be honest, and unite her childhood with her present.
Throughout the story, there are flashbacks to different points in Amanda’s life, pre-transition, at different ages. Her life was tough, she experienced bullying and social isolation, her parents rowed about her difficulties, and her father made it clear she fell short of his masculinity measure. These flashbacks help to round out Amanda’s story, without taking away from her present.
Russo says in a note at the end of the book that she chose to make Amanda’s story simpler than many real trans stories, because Amanda is straight, and girly, and has always known she’s a girl. She also goes through all the transition surgeries and starts hormones pretty young, she ‘passes’ easily, and is conventionally attractive. And, Russo says, it’s important to know those things are not true for a lot of trans people. I found, reading the story, that I was actually okay with those simplified aspects. Although I was also grateful for the note, too. It’s one possible trans story. Hopefully, as time goes on there’ll be more fictional trans stories that will get as much attention as this one, with more variety and flexibility. But the world moves slower than we sometimes want, and that’s not Russo’s fault. The romance plot is quite standard in some respects, but I like Grant, Amanda’s boyfriend—they both share a love of Star Wars, which is pretty cute and dorky, and Grant’s own family struggles make him much more sensitive than his footballer friends. I have no issue with people using romance as a vehicle for bigger issues—if it was okay for Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, where’s the problem?
What’s important for me about the story, and what feels authentic, are all the small subtle ways that being trans impacts on Amanda’s everyday life. She’s often afraid of being found out, or making some social slip-up, somehow falling short as a girl. Her fears and insecurities are very relatable, and I could feel her weariness at living through all of that. But in contrast to her troubled past, and failed suicide attempt, the present is so much better. Acknowledging her identity gives her tremendous strength, as does facing many of her fears. It’s in these carefully observed and rendered details that Russo’s own experience as a trans woman really comes through. I also appreciate the observation that everyone keeps secrets, and presents a face to the world that doesn’t tell the whole of their story.
In some ways, it’s an idealised story, but Amanda’s world is still pretty far from ideal. Russo focuses primarily on the emotional side of Amanda’s experience, and for me, that’s a plus. I find stories with a big surgical focus pretty tough to read, personally, and actually I think they play into a mainstream media obsession with trans bodies. I also want to know where I can get a trans mentor like Virginia—someone Amanda can call when she needs to talk, a kind of big sis who she can rely on. There’s a nice touch in the fact that this is set in small town southern America, with a fair few working class characters, and Amanda finds a degree of acceptance there. I guess that’s drawn also from Russo’s own experience, as she originally hails from Tennessee.
My only misgiving is that the pacing is really fast at the start, which made me feel like I’d been thrown into the middle of things too quickly, but I got used to the pace, and the flashbacks help to fill in the gaps. It slows down a bit once the initial set-up is established, and I soon got into the rhythm of it. I read the whole book in one sitting, which for me is rare, but it’s definitely a page turner.
Amanda’s story is a tough one, but it’s not a tragic one, and for me that’s welcome. (Though trigger warning for sexual assault towards the end.) I’m going to spoiler and say, she gets a pretty happy ending. I don’t always need that from a book, but I was glad of it for this one. Now for more queered up trans stories and trans space adventures.