Author: Winter Page
My Rating: 2 of 5 stars
From the Publisher:
Raimi Carter is finally a girl, just like she always knew she was meant to be. At a new school where nobody knows she’s had gender reassignment surgery, she hopes to finally live the normal life she’s longed for, happy in her own skin.
Life is great until she discovers a dangerous bully is blackmailing head cheerleader, Clare Strickland, threatening to reveal her secret: she’s gay. As Raimi fights to free Clare from his clutches, the two girls move beyond friendship. But secrets from their pasts and their own fears of coming out tear them apart—maybe forever. Baring their souls to each other could cost them everything. For two girls trapped and desperately in love, only strength, courage, and trust in each other will help them break free and claim their future.
This review contains spoilers.
Okay. Cards on the table. This will not be a positive review. As a reader, I know I am quite impatient with YA because it deals with issues and concepts which, as I wither into my thirties, become increasingly less relevant to me.
The thing is, though, I believe that good YA is written with conviction and respect for the people it concerns – people who are real, and whose choices and values and experiences (while they may not be mine) are genuinely valid. Weirdly, it’s one of the effective things about Twilight. As an adult, I might find Bella’s relationship with Edward cringeworthy and borderline abusive, but I don’t think this has anything to do with the fact she’s under twenty. While we may question Bella’s taste, and occasionally her mental health, she’s still just a person. She’s not a special type of person who is a teenager, and her love for Edward (while it may display hallmarks of immaturity to the rest of us) is always taken seriously by the text, and the author.
In Breaking Free, however, the main character, Raimi, constantly talks about her world as if she’s an alien in it. This might be a deliberate device to emphasise the way Raimi’s experiences have set her apart from her peers (she was home-schooled for two years, and has recently transitioned) but, with my ungenerous hat on, it often reads like an adult who doesn’t have a lot of respect for teenagers stuffing that into the mouth of her – cough – teenage protagonist.
Here are some examples:
They both laughed, and we went to the party like that. Carefree and completely young. I don’t think I had ever felt so much like a teenager as in that one moment.
I’m sorry, and maybe it’s just me, but I simply can’t remember ever identifying as feeling either “young” or “like a teenager” when I was a teenager. I thought I was a person, and I was pretty invested in acting, and feeling, older. The carefree joy of being young is very much an adult perspective.
It was stupid to keep their silence and was rooted in even more stupid fears, but it was also the code we teens lived by.
This is our noble heroine deciding not to take her drugged and nearly date-raped friend for a drug test because, even though she explicitly believes not doing so would be stupid, she apparently feels it is more important for her to act in accordance with her perception of how teenagers behave than … do the right thing? Hello? Whut? The teen code shows up a few times in the novel to elide or explain nonsensical, stupid and otherwise problematic behaviour – since the underlying assumption here seems to be that teenagers act differently to adults out of general idiocy and ignorance, not because, y’know, they’re people operating in a different social context with a different set of values and expectations. Sigh.
Anyway, Breaking Free opens with Raimi starting at a new school. She settles in, makes two generic friends, one per gender, and notices the conventional attractiveness of a blonde girl called Clare Strickland.
Clare is a dating a Rapist. No, seriously. She is dating a Rapist called Brad. Raimi encounters Brad trying to rape Clare at the library, and then later at a party. She takes the drugged Clare home, lets her sleep in the spare room, and learns that Clare is dating a Rapist because the Rapist has “something on her”. What the Rapist has on Clare is proof that Clare is a lesbian (by which we mean a picture of Clare kissing a girl and putting her hands up the girl’s shirt, because it only counts as a lesbian kiss if boobs are fondled – this is the Lesbian Code) and this all comes out anyway when Clare dumps the Rapist for reasons that never become clear, since it seems a bit odd to doggedly stick with a Rapist until a protagonist comes along, and then just arbitrarily not.
Anyway, the discovery that Clare is a lesbian causes an outbreak of school-wide homophobia, and everyone except the heroine is infected. Raimi, who understands all this because protagonist, decides to save Clare. This is naturally a healthy foundation from which they can start dating, and fall in love.
Stuff about this book that didn’t suck: well, Clare and Raimi are quite sweet together. The writing is not always uniformly dreadful. Raimi’s gender-identity and sexuality are both sensitively handled. Unfortunately, pretty much everything else bothered me on one level or another, not helped by the occasional, shall we say, peculiarities of the style. I offer these examples without comment as writing is very subjective:
Light streamed in, slanting with midmorning.
The smile slipped off of her face like an echo bouncing off her soul, fleeing farther and farther from her.
The book is told entirely in first person, apart from two random pages that are related in third person from Clare’s perspective. With no explanation, and for absolutely no reason, as far as I can tell, except possibly that there was an emotional need to convey to the reader Clare’s sadness about breaking up with Raimi, and the writer couldn’t come up with a less crass way of doing it. Possibly that also accounts for why the main villain turns up at the heroine’s house in order to shoot himself in front of her, rather than anywhere else on the planet he might more plausibly have chosen to do something like that.
Far more troubling, however, than the style was the substance. There are dark themes in this book – homophobia, transphobia, sexual abuse, depression, BDD, death, suicide, alcoholism – but they’re pretty much drawn in crayon. Homophobia and transphobia, in the world of Breaking Free, are widespread, solely the province of Bad People Who Are Bad, and consist of extreme acts of physical and verbal violence. And while I get that this is one form bigotry can take, the idea that homophobia and transphobia literally consists of people who hate fags, and spend all their time talking loudly about how much they hate fags would be funny if it wasn’t so deeply troubling in its reduction of a hugely complex social issue to its most banal and blatant expression.
Equally, the political intersections around The Dark Themes often end up in quite difficult territory. Near the end of the book, Rapist!Brad learns that Raimi is trans* and beats her up in the cafeteria for being a “worthless piece of trash tranny” while nobody does anything to help. Clare eventually comes to Raimi’s rescue, and turns on the crowd, telling them:
“You’re all sick. You watched him beat a girl up, and no one did a thing. You all talk a big game about doing what’s right.”
Now, on the one hand, this scene relatively effectively explores the way in which trans* people often end up getting the worst of both worlds when it comes to social expectations of gender. Obviously, it’s not my place to speak for trans* people and, obviously, experiences vary but from my limited understanding, transwomen are not only subjected to misogynistic and transphobic abuse, but also lack the (cursory and unreliable) protection that is afforded to ciswomen as a result of cultural taboos against “hitting girls”. And I can see the value of a scene which confronts both the characters and the reader with the emotional reality of Raimi’s identity. Rightly or wrongly, cultural taboos against hitting women have a visceral psychological impact which bypasses rational considerations. I think one of the potential difficulties in understanding trans* issues is going from accepting on an intellectual level that, for example, Raimi is a girl, and genuinely reacting emotionally to her as you would emotionally react to a ciswoman.
But I find this scene problematic because it’s presented as a confrontation between Clare and her explicitly transphobic classmates. Because Clare is so keen to stress the beating up a girl angle, she reinforces the idea that “is a Raimi a real girl?” is the central question for consideration. Essentially Brad’s thesis is that Raimi is not a real girl, and therefore she should be beaten up, while Clare’s counterpoint is that she is a real girl, and therefore shouldn’t. And, obviously, reaffirming the “realness” of Raimi’s gender-identity is important, but it comes at the cost of taking for granted other harmful assumptions – like the notion it would be perfectly okay to beat Raimi up if she’d merely been a transvestite or an effeminate gay man.
Perhaps it was just my reading, but I felt these sort of messy intersectionalities undermined a great deal of the text. While I recognise that this is a fundamentally a book about trans* issues, and that those issues will therefore necessarily be central, I felt that ways they were expressed and explored often – I assume unintentionally – ended up reinforcing ideas and stereotypes that I personally find troubling.
For example, the book seems quite invested in a strangely normative idea of authentic femininity. And, again, I recognise that for a lot of trans* people markers of gender expression can be extremely important – there’s quite a nice bit early on where Raimi wishes she had curvier hips because it would make her feel more girly – but these standards seem to be taken by the text as absolutes. For example, when Raimi and Clare are on their first date, Clare wants to take her to pizza parlour, and Raimi, teasingly protests she’ll get fat, to which Clare replies:
“Honey, when I date a girl, I want to date a girl. Not a girl trapped in a little boy’s body.”
Now I admit this is partly just a question of personal experience, but this is one of those things that I’ve spent quite a lot of time believing you should never ever say to anyone. Bodies are diverse, and some women (cis and trans* alike) have small breasts and slim hips. This doesn’t make them boys. And, obviously, I don’t mind that Raimi doesn’t freak out at this because it is – I understand – a harmful stereotype that all trans* people are deeply insecure about their bodies at all times, but at the same time this is something about her body that she has explicitly noted feeling insecure about earlier in the book. Again, interpretations of texts differ and mileage varies but, to me, when you put a line like that into a book and leave it unchallenged, particularly in a book that is so much about the authenticity of gender identity and gender expression, you imply that the ideas expressed in it – that there is a particular body shape which is a “girl” body shape and is distinct from a “boy” body shape – are not only okay but are actually accurate.
The other really difficult stereotype that this book embraces wholeheartedly is Homophobes Are Gay, in the literal rather than pejorative sense. So, yes, it turns out the reason Brad was a violent, abusive, psychotic, drug-abusing, serial rapist was that he was A Gay. The thing is, there have been a great many well publicised cases of prominent members of homophobic organisations getting caught with their hands in the gay cookie jar, and this is always seen as a victory by supporters of gay rights, even though it really, really isn’t. It’s got to the point that, for a lot of people, their first thought on seeing a truly objectionable, ignorant homophobe on TV is “I bet he’s a poofter.” This is actually a really harmful stereotype because it reinforces the idea that being gay is so bad that the worst thing people can think to say about a man who pickets the funerals of American servicemen or wears a God Hates Fags T-shirt is that he probably likes cock. And, obviously, on some level what people are objecting to is hypocrisy. There is always something contemptible about people who don’t live by their own principles, even if those principles are themselves contemptible. But there’s also just something weirdly homophobic about the idea that bigot is essentially a subclass of gay.
It doesn’t help that Brad has no redeeming features whatsoever, to such an extent that the book seems to explicitly accept that the only unambiguously good thing he does is kill himself. Again, I appreciate that this a slightly odd criticism to make of a book about a lesbian transwoman, but I really don’t think it’s okay for the only gay man in your narrative to be somebody who is literally better off dead. And I suppose you can make the argument that Brad is just as much a victim of his society as Clare and Raimi are but because he so unremittingly two dimensional and cartoonishly evil his experiences have no reality.
I absolutely don’t think this is intentional but another way to look at it is that the big payoff at the end of Breaking Free that leads to the happy ending for our protagonists is, well, the suicide of a gay teenager.
I really don’t know how to rate this book. My reaction to it was profoundly negative, but I’m aware that a lot of the things that bothered me were quite personal, and I feel a bit bad because there really isn’t much trans*, lesbian, or lesbian trans* YA fiction out there. So I sort of respect the book for telling a kind of story that is very seldom told. Unfortunately, I just don’t think it tells it very well.
I would like to thank the publisher for providing me with the eARC of this title in exchange for my honest opinion.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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