Book review: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

Goodreads   Amazon

“For as long as I could remember, I had been apologizing for existing, for trying to be who I was, to live the life I was meant to lead.”

I have been trying for about thirty minutes to come up with an adequate summary of this book.  A summary that doesn’t belittle the subject matter or leave out any important details. A summary that doesn’t reveal any spoilers. I’m at a loss, honestly, so here is the official blurb:

Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school in Lambertville, Tennessee. Like any other girl, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret. There’s a reason why she transferred schools for her senior year, and why she’s determined not to get too close to anyone.

And then she meets Grant Everett. Grant is unlike anyone she’s ever met—open, honest, kind—and Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself…including her past. But she’s terrified that once she tells Grant the truth, he won’t be able to see past it.

Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It’s that she used to be Andrew.

So first things first, I think I need to start with a little disclaimer.  I am a straight cisgender female.  I understand and fully acknowledge that I cannot relate to Amanda’s struggles.  This book was not written for me, and that is completely okay.

Now, onto some rants, which you are fully welcome to skip–

In case you hadn’t realized, the year is 2017 and for some reason, trans people are still an issue.  I work in a medical practice, and we have trans patients. (Not many, but some.) Is this is a big deal? No. Do people make it a big deal? Yes. My boss, in fact, will often strike up a conversation about famous trans people just to get a rise out of me.  She thinks it’s funny when I get angry about this. She doesn’t care one bit about whether the patients overhear.  Small children can understand people wanting to be referred to differently, but this forty-year-old woman can’t.

Personally, I don’t understand this, since someone else’s gender has literally no bearing on my life, but we evidently live in a time in which politicians think it’s a-okay to make laws about who can use what bathroom under the guise of “women’s safety.”  Now, I don’t mean to get all political on this blog (although I kind of do), but I am much more comfortable with the idea of peeing next to a trans woman than I am with the idea of peeing next to somebody who feels like it’s their place to dictate what someone else does with their own genitalia.

Anyway, on to my review.

The main criticism I’ve seen of this book is that it’s too easy. That Amanda never really struggles.  Her mother accepts her immediately. Her father, though a little more reluctant, makes an effort. She’s given easy access to hormones and surgery despite her (seemingly) lower-middle-class upbringing. She’s into stereotypically girly things like makeup and pretty dresses. She easily passes as a woman and not one of her new classmates suspects that she’s trans. Upon walking into a new school, she instantly has two football players hitting on her and four girls clamoring to be her new best friends. The criticism, it seems, is that Russo should have written a more honest book.

I have a lot to say on this matter.

First, imagine Amanda is not trans. Imagine she’s your average female YA protagonist starting at a new school. Would you be all up in arms that two boys thought she’s cute?  Would you think it’s weird that a bunch of girls accepted her into their inner circle?  No, you would think it’s just any other YA book.  So why does this have to be different?

Second, I don’t see why a book featuring a trans character must immediately be heartbreaking. There are enough sad stories on the news. This is not an exposé. It’s not a list of every awful event that has ever happened. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ve come to the wrong place.  This is a book that brings awareness to a group that is very rarely shown in literature, especially young adult literature.

I have been thinking and thinking and thinking since I finished this book and I have been unable to come up with any book I’ve ever read that’s featured a trans protagonist. (I should probably put a disclaimer here though that I have read a ton of books in my life, and it’s entirely possible that I have read such a book and just forgotten about it.)

I do recall that Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters features a trans character, but she’s not the protagonist, and also, I read that book 10+ years ago, so I’m not sure if it even counts anymore.  My point here is that it’s really uncommon for a book, especially a young adult book, to feature trans characters, so I think it is wonderful that this book even exists, let alone that Amanda is such an accessible character.

Because even though this book might not be “honest,” all of the characters felt so real. I feel like I could wander into the nearest high school and find these people.  And sure, maybe Grant was a little too good to be true.  (Many YA love interests are.)  Maybe it’s a little unrealistic that Amanda could immediately find a group of four girls willing to take her on shopping sprees and teach her about sports bras and defend her to the death, but I just keep coming back to my point that it’s absolutely irrelevant.  Because this happens in so many young adult novels. It’s not exclusive to this one, and to insinuate that this book can’t use the same tropes as a young adult novel featuring a cis protagonist is ridiculous.

Before I get on to my next point, I just want to give a warning to any readers that might be sensitive to it: Throughout her life, Amanda is subjected to an awful lot of bullying, including being attacked in a bathroom. Prior to her move to Lambertville, she attempts suicide using her mother’s prescription pain medication. I feel like it’s important to mention this not only for people who may want to avoid these triggers in the books they read but also because it explains the undercurrent of anxiety that runs through the book. Amanda’s life in Lambertville might be pretty good, but she’s always prepared for the fallout. She’s always ready for someone to be just around the corner, poised to attack. She knows that peace and quiet never lasts.

I had my expectations about what would happen. I thought maybe Grant would find out and make a scene. Or Parker, Grant’s friend that Amanda rejects at the beginning of the book, would find someone from her hometown to tell the entire school her secret. I try to maintain spoiler-free reviews at all times, so I can’t comment on what finally happens, but it was not what I expected. It was also not unbelievable. Another credit to the author for not taking the easy road, but also not randomly throwing a wrench in the plot.

I almost wanted this book to be longer.  I definitely wished for a more concrete ending. But then I thought about it, and I decided that I’m okay with the book being short and I’m okay with the ending. I think it’s better to hold out hope that everything turned out well for Amanda.  As a rule, I generally despise open endings, but I’m not convinced that a nice tidy ending with a pretty bow would have been any better in this book. So while I might have wanted to see the entire town simply accept Amanda as she is as she and Grant run off to New York together to start a new life together, I’m sure this would have brought even more criticism and even more cries of “impossible” or “unrealistic” or “dishonest.”

I just loved this book so much. I can hardly believe it was a debut, and I am so impressed with the way Meredith Russo was able to touch my heart. I will absolutely keep an eye out for her future work. I hope that she continues to write books like this one.

As a side note, I would ask you to read the author’s note at the end of the book. I often skip over these, but for some reason, I was compelled to read this one. It is so, so important and explains a lot of the criticisms people have had with the book.

Final rating: ★★★★★

#mmdreading: a book by an #ownvoices or #diversebooks author