The French Club isn’t so much about French. For Mark, it’s become the unofficial hangout for himself and his friends: Rachel and Nadia, Jewish and Muslim respectively, and in love; Pablo, allosexual, and one of Mark’s best friends; along with Jenny, who is aromantic; and then there’s Benji, who is loud, proud, and high-femme and a late, unofficial entry to their friend group. When Mark finds Benji being bullied, shoved around, and insulted by a pair of football players, he tries to help … but help comes too late. Benji takes a swing at his attackers, breaking a nose, and no matter that he as the one being bullied, Benji is the one asked to apologize or be suspended.
Mark suggests, reluctantly, that Benji apologize. It isn’t right and it isn’t fair, but it will make the least noise. A suspension on Benji’s record could hurt his college applications (Mark, himself, hopes to get into Harvard). But Benji isn’t willing to back down. With a blaring public op-ed in the school blog, Benji tells the school exactly what he thinks of them and their zero-tolerance policy. He takes the suspension and Mark wishes he were half as brave.
For Mark, Benji’s act of defiance becomes a rallying cry. What happened was wrong. The fact that Benji has been bullied for months, for years, is inexcusable. It’s time for someone to do something about it, and for the son of a congressman who hopes to go in to politics — who loves Shondaland series and the West Wing — there is no choice but to take this fight the full distance. Mark is going to run for student body president and bring change to Utopia Heights.
Mark, along with his friends, is in the International Baccalaureate program. Think of it as AP’s bigger, more intimidating sibling. There’s community service, extended essays, honor’s classes, and a mandatory high GPA. Mark’s mother is an oncologist, his father a congressman. He has an extensive vocabulary and a very decided voice. Mark pontificates and many of his conversations — even with his friends — can sound like mini-speeches. It’s because he’s been training himself to, like his father, have a career in politics. He intends to be a voice for the people. He watches CNN religiously. He cares. But … he also gets in his own head, and in his own way.
Running for student body president puts Mark squarely in the spotlight, and that comes with more pressure than even his friends can imagine. Because Mark is transgender. When he told his parents, Mark’s mother accepted him, unconditionally. His father … did not. So Mark and his Mother moved to Santa Julia so that Mark could start in a new school with his name, his gender, and his hormone treatment. It’s a separation, not a divorce, because Mark’s father doesn’t want anyone to know about Mark — who he dead names every time they talk. The relationship between Mark and his mother, Mark and his father, and even the glimpses of Mark’s parents … hurts. I have hopes that one day the wounds between Mark and his father can heal, even if they will inevitably leave scars.
This is a book with a message. It’s standing proud and tall on a soapbox, and I for one am more than willing to buy the soap. There seems to be this thought in popular culture about people being “different” in the right way. A person can be quirky — you know, the funny one, the sassy one, the geeky one, the alternative one — so long as it’s digestible in it’s pop culture approved packaging. Or, as Mark’s dad says it:
“… if you want to grow up to make the world a better place for other people, you don’t get to be one of them. You have to be better. Not normal, but perfect. Above reproach.”
Mark isn’t above reproach. He’s a bit of a jerk to his friends, being lost in his own head and his own feelings, something exacerbated by hormones. He struggles with dysphoria, with his need for his father’s approval, with his crush on Ralph, who happens to be the twin of one of his French Club friends … and who he charms into running as his VP. Mark hasn’t told his friends that he’s trans, and when one of them comes out as genderfluid, Mark has a moment to share his truth with them. But it’s hard. Every time someone assumes he’s male, compliments him for being able to fit in it feels like a success, even while the truth eats at him.
Being transgender is as much a part of Mark as his hair. He’s more focused on the campaign, on his boyfriend, on the lies he told and the truths he wants to tell. This book is light on the angst and heavy on the characterization. The pacing is very fast, with the story taking place over a few weeks, and the writing is wonderful. If you want a book filled with hope, optimism, heart, and love, read this book. It’s also just a really, really good book. Mark’s careful romance with Ralph, and his relationship with his mother, his father, and even himself is so well done … and I have added this author on my “to stalk” list.