The teenage years are supposed to be rife with raging hormones…so when Robby became self-conscious about his lack of arousal, he assumed the best remedy was to spend the summer before his senior year of high school beefing up. Now with testosterone supposedly flooding his system, he is sure he can finally figure out exactly what flips his trigger.
Andy has also undergone a body change, albeit one far more dramatic than Robby’s. Biologically female, Andy has long known he was a boy in all other regards. When he finally takes the plunge to come out to his parents, he is relieved that they quickly come to terms with the shift and are nothing less than fully supportive. They go so far as to relocate for Andy so he can have a fresh start—just in time for his senior year at high school—in a new place where he will only ever be known as Andy, “the new guy.”
From the very first day, there is a spark between Andy and Robby. What starts as comfortable friendship revolving around a shared and intense interest in academia soon evolves into something sweeter, if more confusing. The idea that they may be falling for each other is equally confounding on both sides. Robby is worried his continuing inability to get aroused with someone hints at some shortcoming on his part. Andy is busy coming to terms with living as a boy when the secret that he is a FTM transgender gets leaked to the wrong kinds of kids at school.
Despite a group of bullies after anyone who doesn’t fit their antiquated ideal of what is “normal,” things come to a head when those bullies decide to teach Andy, and by extension Robby, a “lesson.” Will the trauma succeed as a means to the bullies’ ends or will it backfire?
Here is a story that I found to be an interesting study on less common sexualities. Given that it stars a cast of mostly high school-aged characters, I felt we really got to focus on the journey into self-awareness and coming to grips with any and all aspects of sexual identity. That alone set the book a bit apart for me, but to keep it…”grounded” in familiar tropes, much of the drama is provided by the group of bullies and two sets of parents seemingly at opposite ends of the parenting spectrum (very hands off versus very hands on).
From the get-go, one thing I found an interesting/irritating juxtaposition is that while the author clearly wants to open people’s eyes/minds to alternate gender identitites/sexualities, it can be a struggle for people who ultimately wind up in those alternatives to recognize there IS more than a dichotomy or even more than a sliding scale. To illustrate, this quote drove me nuts but it comes directly from Robby:
[H]e knew in the back of his mind, he would be off to college next fall, be expected to find a girl—or a boy—to date, get engaged, and then married. How could he do that, given his lack of interest in, well, anyone?
Yeah, I figure if I get real pumped…I can take out anyone who hassles girls or gay guys or you…
And one more (from Andy’s father, when Andy’s gone missing):
Mr. Khan announced, “Gabe [Andy’s younger brother], stay with your mother. Robby and I will go look for [Andy].”
Robby volunteered, “I’ll take my car. We can cover more area that way.” Mr. Khan agreed, and they left, leaving a weeping Ruth in the house with a helpless Gabe in case Andy came home.
I see two things happening here that can go two ways—they’re either the exception that proves the point, or they’re honest oversights. With the first quote, what dives me nuts is that the whole book is pushing to expand people’s understanding of human sexuality in all its forms, not just through a dichotomy or even a sliding scale between two termini. Yet while Robby serves as the poster boy for THAT kind of awareness, he is still limited in thinking the “correct” path forward needs be includes (eye roll) marriage—a metric that it still (eye roll!) unfortunately the yardstick against which adult human worth is measured.
On top of that, the second quote is disappointing because it reinforces the idea that only Strong Men! can protect Not Strong Men! Like there’s something inherently not strong about being a girl, a gay guy, or a FTM transgender teen. Which is again reinforced later by Mr. Khan leaving his wife, Ruth, “weeping” while the Strong Men! go off to save the helpless/hapless Andy from the evil clutches of the school bullies.
Puh-fucking-leez. These scenarios ring utterly false to me; I was hugely disappointed by them because the book SEEMS to be about blasting these gender/sex stereotypes out of the water, yet for some reason selectively upholds other potentially harmful social constructs as norms.
But I digress. As much as the story (selectively?) takes on issues related to sexuality, it is strongly rooted in the tweenager demographic. Like I said, much drama stems from the school bullies and absent parents. The stars really are Robby and Andy. We go on a journey with them that starts at the beginning of the school year and neatly wraps up at the end with a bit of epilogue-y insight into what becomes of them years down the road.
If teenage drama is your bag, you’ll definitely enjoy this book. Robby definitely takes center stage, though the narration is in third person. It is into his life that the read gets the most intimate look—from his ablution routines to his thoughts about a friend who ends up being gay despite strong homophobic streak, his shifting extracurricular interests, and his internal struggles coming to grips with an enduring inability to get sexually aroused by other people. We spend a lot of time with Andy, as well, and it was touching to read about the kinds of struggles a FTM transgender encounters…like overcoming hard-wired language habits—like referring to himself as a lesbian despite already having socially and (partially) physically transitioned into a male.
As for Andy, on page he’s pretty charming. He’s got enough in common with Robby to make their friendship and ensuing romance feel genuine for their age range. One thing I was disappointed by was the lack of exposition on Andy’s apparent inability to cope with discrimination. Despite vicious verbal abuse and far worse later on, he’s never keen to hold anyone’s feet to the fire. This does create a nice bit of angst because Strong Man! Robby is all about making bags of dicks pay for their bag of dicky-ness, but Andy just wants to forget the whole thing.
On the whole, the writing is pitched towards a younger audience. The dramatic scenes are on par with what I’d expect of a tween-centered story, but it’s definitely enough to entertain adults. If you picked up on the OTHER social constructs that are either inadvertently or intentionally (?) reinforced, you’ve got fodder for righteous eye rolling at the incongruity (or you will have done now that you’ve read this review). If you’re at all interested in trying books that focus on alternative sexualities, this would be a great introductory read.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.