Monday, April 18, 2011

Pink by Lili Wilkinson

I was super excited for this book - Australia, theater, and, most importantly, a bisexual protagonist! And in fact, there are lots of small things to love here, but I was never quite sold on our protagonist.

PinkAva has always been a dutiful daughter - going with the flow at her public high school, eschewing pink (and most other colors) from her utilitarian wardrobe, and spending lots of time with her radical anarchist girlfriend. Did I mention that Ava's parents are anti-establishment types? But Ava yearns for some normalcy in her life - demanding academics, pink argyle sweaters, and maybe even a boyfriend or two. So she convinces her parents that she should start attending a rigorous private school, a place where no one knows the old Ava and she can make herself over without anyone from her old life commenting on the change.

While her new look immediately ingratiates Ava with the popular "pastels" of the school, that doesn't make her new life easy. Joining the stage crew of the school musical (after an epic crash and burn at the actual auditions) in order to be close to the cutest boy on campus, Ava finds the "Screws" are the school's social lepers - and decides that she's now qualified to give them a social leg up even while she's precariously balancing her new social status, and hiding her new self from her old girlfriend and family. Most troubling to Ava is balancing her emotions - she still feels close to her girlfriend Chloe, but she undeniably finds the lead guy in the musical hot, and then there's the cute and helpful leader of the Screws who makes her feel all sorts of confused. Which Ava is the real Ava? And will she ever become comfortable with herself?

For me, Ava herself was the biggest problem of the story, in that she doesn't seem to actually grow in any meaningful way. The best illustration of this for me was when she tried to play matchmaker among the Screws, and it fails miserably, in part because Ava makes a lot of assumptions about the people whose hearts she's toying with. But in the end, Ava pulls the exact same stunt...only because it's a platonic set up everyone's okay with it? Also I have to say that while I love having a character proudly call herself a feminist, Ava has some extremely retrograde and ill-informed feminist thoughts. Which would be okay if she'd come up with them independently but considering her parents are professors and should be on the cutting edge of gender studies, it doesn't make sense that Ava would be so incredibly wrong sometimes (and really, asking the kid of Asian descent where he's "really" from? Wow, not okay. And that's pointed out in the text, but is again illustrative of just how out of touch with progressive and feminist thought Ava is).

BUT, it is encouraging to see a story with a bisexual protagonist - not that Ava uses the label for herself, but it's probably the closest label that fits. She makes it very clear that her relationship with Chloe is real and important and certainly not just a phase, and while it's a little preachy I did feel it was important to include some acknowledgement of the legitimacy of that relationship to make it clear that Ava wasn't just a lesbian until the "right guy" came along to straighten her out.

Also, science fiction geeks will have a lot of fun with Ava's stage crew friends, as they are huge nerds. In a delightful way. Lots of discussions of Star Trek and Lord of the Rings and zombies and...just general geekery. Gotta love that.
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