Monday, July 4, 2016

If I Was Your Girl » Book Review + Discussion of "Issue Books"

Is•sue Book /iSHo͞o bo͝ok/, n.

  1. A written work dedicated to exploring a specific social concern.

All novels engage social issues in some way.  Pick a novel, any novel... that book deals with a public controversy or a human concern. Yes, even The Laird Who Loved Me. But what makes an "issue book" different is its intensity of focus on a specific problem.

For instance, The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green, is undeniably an issue book about cancer. The main characters, Hazel and Gus, are teenagers with... cancer.  On their quest to understand mortality, Hazel and Gus are challenged over and over again by the symptoms of their... cancer. The novel is even dedicated to Esther Earl, a girl who died too soon of cancer.

Now, issue books have a bad rap, in general. That's because many of them are inexplicably novels when they could, for all intents and purposes, be editorials. I've read many an issue book where an author prioritizes his agenda before the quality of his story.  Even if a reader agrees with the issue being discussed, who wants to read horrible prose?

In regards to John Green, I think he got it right with The Fault In Our Stars.  Sure, there are a lot of people who think he was too heavy-handed, but overwhelmingly, readers love his book.  I think it's because he combined heartfelt perspective with masterful storytelling. His novel is an issue book done right.

If I Was Your Girl

If I Was Your Girl is an issue book. The story is a vehicle for the author to discuss transexuality, to appeal to readers with differing mindsets.  Meredith Russo says as much in her Author's Note, listing all the ways she tweaked Amanda's character to make her appealing to cisgender (non-transgender) readers...
I have, in some ways, cleaved to stereotypes and even bent rules to make Amanda’s trans-ness as unchallenging to normative assumptions as possible. She knew from a very young age. She is exclusively attracted to boys. She is entirely feminine. She passes as a woman with little to no effort. She had a surgery that her family should not have been able to afford, and she started hormones through legitimate channels before she probably could have in the real world. I did this because I wanted you to have no possible barrier to understanding Amanda as a teenage girl with a different medical history from most other girls.

Something about these "cleaved stereotypes" and "bent rules" really irks me, now that I've sat down to write a review.  But I picked up on this irritation, almost intangibly, while I was reading.  Not only did I think Amanda's voice sounded kind of robotic, but I found myself cloyed by Amanda's uber-femininity, the same way I'm usually repulsed by uber-masculinity. It was too much.

Russo also writes...
Amanda’s life and identity would be just as valid if she didn’t figure herself out until later in life, or if she were a tomboy, or if she were bisexual or a lesbian or asexual, or if she had trouble passing, or if she either could not or chose not to get “bottom” surgery.

I agree completely. And I think I would have found If I Was Your Girl more compelling had Amanda's character not been all the way, pressed up against, the feminine side of the gender spectrum. If she'd been a little less of a perfect example.

I understand Russo's motivations for crafting Amanda the way she did.  But for me, Russo's intentions backfired.  I found myself less convinced by Amanda's character, because she was more than usually artificial for a fictional character.

The Bottom Line

If I Was Your Girl is an issue book, taking on the important subject matter of transexuality. For this reason alone, I think it has inherent virtue.  But is the book a compelling story in its own right? That is up for debate.

If I Was Your Girl isn't a bad book. Meredith Russo isn't a master storyteller, but she isn't a poor one, either.  The novel held my attention, and I felt genuine suspense while reading Amanda's story. Ultimately, however, I wasn't moved the way I wanted to be.

The main problem, I think, was that Russo's need to champion her issue took over everything else. She writes...
I am a storyteller, not an educator.

But I think she's both.


  1. Very interesting points! I definitely plan on reading this!

  2. Do it, Lauren! I'm interested to know what you'd think of the book!

  3. While I loved George, I felt the same way with that book as well. I look forward to seeing more YA books in the market that handle transgender issues.

  4. This was such a carefully written review that I could appreciate for that reason. I fully agree about issue books - it's good that they are addressing these issues but they do need to be written well too.