Friday, January 23, 2009

Review: Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Doyle

Yesterday was a bad book day for me. I had several long subway rides, and I had this and Feathered with me - I was very unhappy for most of the day. Reading disappointing books can throw off my whole day.

Down to the Bone doesn't waste any time in letting us know what this book is going to be about. On the first page Laura is reading a love letter from her girlfriend in the middle of class on her last day of her junior year of high school, and by page 10 the note has been discovered by her teacher, read in front of the class, and Laura has been thrown out of her conservative Latino Catholic high school for being a tortillera. Shortly after, Laura is also thrown out of her house, along with her little puppy (who has so many cutesy nicknames half the time I didn't recognize the dog when it was called by its actual name), because not only is she a "degenerate," but she won't reveal her girlfriend's identity.

From there, the story rambles on, jumping ahead months at a time in order to reach the next significant plot point. Laura's girlfriend, Marlena, is shipped back to Puerto Rico to marry a guy when her family discovers her diary and her writings about Laura. Laura pines over Marlena and is heartbroken when she calls up to say they were both sick and wrong and that she wholeheartedly loves her new heterosexual life. From there, Laura - who is also now determined to be straight in order to get back into her mother's good graces and see her little brother again - falls in with a huge group of friends of varying stages of queerness, which seems like an odd choice for a wanna-be straight girl. She has to deal with her conflicting feelings for the lone straight guy in the group, her mad crush on a waitress at a local gay restaurant, and hostile co-workers.

All in all, way too much was happening in this novel. On the back cover, Brent Hartinger asks where all the lesbian books are, and where the racial diversity is at in young adult queer lit. Well, I don't know where Brent has been, but lesbian protagonists aren't a new thing (and in my experience, their books tend to be better than the gay male books...). As for the racial diversity, yes, there has been a lack of that in YA queer lit, but do we have to accept a sub-par book in order to start filling that gap? It feels like Doyle recognized we need more young lesbians of color in literature, and decided to tackle every possible permutation of The Gay Book in her one novel in order to fill the gap. And all of these problems feel like they've been put there in order to avoid writing an actual plot.

The biggest offense in this book has absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality, but is actually the writing style itself. We are told everything in this book (sometimes in excruciating detail - do we need to know her right hand slapped her right thigh and she raised her left eyebrow? I'm really not even exaggerating that example) rather than shown it. We are told that Laura likes giving natural things as gifts, followed by an awkward and out of place paragraph detailing why. Every time a new person joins the group there's another awkward introduction scene where details of a character's personality, that don't have any bearing on the plot, are re-hashed.

And then a small, personal annoyance: every character in this book is around 17 or 18 years old - yet apparently all know exactly what they want in a romantic partner. Some don't like bi-girls, others don't like girls that are too butch or too femme, some like a girl who takes control in bed and others don't. It had me sitting there wondering if I was the only person who hadn't even figured out that she liked men and women by the time she was 18 (Laura isn't really struggling with this issue - she knows she likes girls, she just wants to like boys instead). There was lots of black and white in this book, even when so many of the characters hated labels being applied to themselves, they were willing to judge one another by relatively inflexible standards.

I really feel like literature of gay teens has come a long way since books like Annie on My Mind - a classic and important book, but the quintessential "problem" novel where the two girls face mostly heartache because of their sexual orientation. We need more books like my favorite Empress of the World - a romance where the two romantic leads just happen to be girls. The biggest angst in that one is Nic trying to figure out how she can like a girl when previously she's liked boys. She doesn't think it's weird or wrong that she likes Battle, it's just confusing. Even better will be when books more like Another Kind of Cowboy become the norm. There's still a lot of focus on Alex's sexuality in this one, but there's also a plot outside of romance or sexuality, the world of competitive dressage. When gay characters can appear beside straight characters in stories that aren't about being gay, then we'll know we've reached some sort of equality. At this point, while racial diversity is certainly important and all people should see themselves represented in some way in literature, this one doesn't feel like its advancing much of a cause between the simplistic plot and overall poor writing.
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