“She told me forgiveness was a virtue and stubbornness would block the road to happiness.”
Please brace yourself, because I have some thoughts on this one. Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit has been on my TBR for years, but I’ve consistently passed it up in favor of books that sounded more exciting. Well, I finally sat down for a listen, and… I have a lot to say.
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MANY SPOILERS!
I’m going to start out with the positives. There aren’t many, but they’re what kept this book from getting just one star. First, I felt like the actual writing was good. Not the progression of the plot or the characterization, which I’ll talk about a lot later in this review, but the flow of the language and dialogue. And second, more importantly, I feel like the exploration of homosexuality and religion is a topic that’s both important and uncommon in YA fiction. There’s a scene where Joanna goes off on some close-minded people who claim that the Bible says homosexuality is a sin by citing the exact verse they’re referring to and the other things it prohibits, like tattoos and shellfish. On that topic, at least, I feel that Brown did an excellent job.
Now for the negatives. There are a lot.
Joanna Gordon, or maybe Gugliemi, depending on who you ask, is an out and proud lesbian living in Atlanta. Her father is a well-known preacher, which some might see as a source of conflict, but Joanna feels that her father preaches acceptance and love, so it’s a nonissue. Joanna has some wild and crazy friends in Atlanta — Dana, in particular — and she feels like her life is going pretty well. When her father marries Elizabeth, his third wife, things start going downhill. First, Joanna gets the news that they’re moving from the big city of Atlanta to the small town of Rome. Then her dad tells her she’ll need to keep quiet about her sexuality because her new grandma-in-law is super homophobic. (Yes, the main conflict of this book happens in the first few pages.)
So… hold on a second. Joanna’s father, Mr. I Preach Love And Acceptance, decides to force his own daughter back in the closet because his new mother-in-law doesn’t like gay people? After being totally accepting of her for her entire life up until that point? Was he out of character for the first chapter or the rest of the book? I can’t tell.
And Joanna! She’s so sure of herself at the beginning of the book, so secure in her sexuality, and she barely puts up a fight before being like, “Ugh, fine, I’ll pretend to be straight.” I thought that maybe, just maybe, the author would make up for this by having Joanna rebel a little in secret. Maybe tell her new friends that she’s a lesbian and just ask them not to say anything. Maybe outright defy her father. But no. She decides that she has to go so far as getting a pretend boyfriend to follow along with her dad’s plan. All for grandma-in-law, who’s a terrible person.
Mary Carlton is another of the main characters. She’s also Joanna’s love interest. She’s the golden child of Rome, Georgia. She’s popular, parents love her, she’s active in the church, she’s an all-around great girl. She throws Joanna some vibes, which Joanna finds confusing, because for all we know, at the beginning of the book, Mary Carlton is dating a boy. It quickly becomes apparent to Joanna, though, that Mary Carlton is very much not interested in this boy and is very possibly interested in her. Mary Carlton isn’t an all-around bad character, but she does do some pretty problematic things, none of which are really ever called out. First, she treats her brother pretty badly, but more on him later. Second, and more importantly to my rant, she attempts to force Joanna out of the closet on multiple occasions. It doesn’t matter that Joanna was out in Atlanta. In Rome, she’s not. I understand that, after years of hiding, Mary Carlton finally feels ready to come out. I understand her wanting to shout from the rooftops that she’s in love. But that does not give her the right to force someone else to come out.
Mary Carlton’s twin brother, Barnum Bailey (no, seriously), becomes one of Joanna’s best friends in Rome. He and Joanna meet in the office when he’s assigned to show her around the school on her first day. Clearly, if he’s capable of doing that, he’s not the child everyone in this book makes him out to be. By the end of the book, Barnum (or B.T.B., as he’s often called) is unable to have even a single conversation without a reference to elephants (his favorite animal). I get that he was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. I get that he has some intellectual disabilities. That doesn’t mean he never matured past kindergarten. He made it to high school and he’s able to function on his own, so maybe act like it.
Finally, Dana. As I mentioned, Dana is Joanna’s best friend from Atlanta. She seems to have both no self-awareness and no regard for others. When confronted about hooking up with a much older woman right out in the open at a wedding, she says something about how she’s not going to force herself back into the closet to make other people comfortable. First of all, can we stop with the teenagers hooking up with much older people? I have seen this so much lately and it really worries me. A normal thirty-year-old is not going to be interested in hooking up with a high school student. Second of all, going back into the closet wasn’t the point, Dana. Respect was the point. If you’re going to hook up with someone, at least have the courtesy to do it in private. Another problematic thing Dana does throughout the course of this book is threaten to “revoke Joanna’s queer card” if she doesn’t “prove how gay she is.” Um, Joanna being gay has absolutely nothing to do with the number of people she hooks up with or what she’s done with them and everything to do with how she feels inside. Third, and perhaps most upsetting, is Dana’s constant manipulation of Joanna. I hate seeing people fall victim to manipulation and I get so frustrated when I can’t stop it, even when it’s a fictional character. It was so obvious that Dana had a crush on Joanna, even if she didn’t want to admit it, and was subtly influencing Joanna’s decisions to get the best possible outcome for herself. This is illustrated during the really uncomfortable scene where Dana ponders (out loud) why she and Joanna have never hooked up and then makes a move on her. It’s just so… icky. Dana was my least favorite character in this book by far.
Okay, so now that I have my character rants out of the way, I’m moving on to a rant on the romance. I’ve seen a ton of reviews calling the romance cute, and I just don’t agree. It was fine, I guess, but it was nothing special. I didn’t have a problem with the romance itself, but we got this big build-up where Joanna wonders whether she’s reading Mary Carlton’s signals correctly, they admit they like each other, and then *boom* they’re on top of each other. I mean, it was obvious that Mary Carlton had feelings for Joanna. We knew from the narration how Joanna felt about Mary Carlton. But it was just kind of like… tension followed by declaration of love followed by clothes falling off. I guess that might happen in adult life sometimes, but does that really happen in high school?
While I’m on the topic of the romance, I really don’t understand why Joanna couldn’t just tell Mary Carlton about the promise she’d made to her dad. It was an unreasonable promise, for sure, but I fully believe that Mary Carlton would have understood and would have been less pushy about Joanna coming out. And this isn’t a case of “oh no, nobody can know my secret,” because literally one of the first things Joanna does after meeting her pretend boyfriend is tell him that she’s gay. Instead, she just tells lie after lie to Mary Carlton, avoiding questions about why they can’t go public with their relationship and saying that she’s not ready to come out yet. And, keep in mind, Joanna tells all of these lies while repeatedly saying that she doesn’t lie, which makes it so much worse.
There’s also a ton of homophobia in this book, and for the most part, Joanna is the only one who calls it out. Except not really, because she’s determined to follow her dad’s rule to stay in the closet, and clearly, if she were to speak out about homophobia, everyone would know she’s gay. That was sarcasm, in case you couldn’t tell. Straight people can (and definitely should) speak out against homophobia. Anyway, I’m a heterosexual adult and it made me uncomfortable. I can only imagine how I’d feel if I were reading this book as an LGBT teenager.
In the end, the moral of the story is to forgive. The quote that I bolded at the top of this review is said by Mary Carlton near the end of the book. She’s found out about Joanna’s lies, she’s been randomly put in this really unhealthy relationship with another girl (which she thankfully extracts herself from), she’s had a good cry, and she comes back to Joanna saying that her mom told her she needs to forgive people. I have shared this PSA before, but you do not need to forgive anyone. By all means, if it’ll make you feel better, if it’ll give you closure, if you feel like it was truly a mistake and you’re ready to try again, forgive someone. But you do not need to forgive people who’ve hurt you in order to be happy. You have every right to be mad. You have every right to be hurt. You have every right to never speak to that person again. Life is too short to keep putting up with people who hurt you.
And that brings me, in sort of a convoluted way, to my final point. All of the conflict in this book began because grandma-in-law was homophobic, and rather than tell her to shut up, all the adults in her life were like, “Yes, let’s make Joanna feel terrible about herself so grandma can continue living in her bubble.” I’m not advocating being rude to grandmas, but I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say something like, “You know what, grandma? Joanna likes girls and that’s not going to change. I’m sorry if that makes you feel uncomfortable, but I can’t ask her to change who she is to make you happy.”
Overall, I feel like this was a good concept that just spectacularly failed in execution. This book gets an extra star for the exploration of faith and homosexuality, but that’s all. I definitely do not recommend.
Have you read Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit? Is it on your TBR?
Let’s talk in the comments!