Tara is an Indian girl, the daughter of immigrants whose parents’ visas are currently in question, and — just to add sprinkles to the sundae — has recently changed schools from the all-boy’s school of St.George to the all-girl’s school of Ainsley Academy. That’s because Tara is a trans girl. Now she can wear skirts, makeup, and be surrounded by girls. She can finally be herself, now that she knows who she is, and it’s wonderful!
True, the teachers aren’t always kind, and her best friends don’t want to actually sleep over, but even those small bumps in the road can’t diminish Tara’s happiness. The only thing she really wants, now, is to join the Sibyls, a semi-secret club for girls where they take on the names of the women from the past, from Greek and Roman myths and stories, goddesses and tragic heroines, and gather in groups to study, talk, and just … be. Whitney and Hannah are pretty sure Tara’s going to get accepted; the club only takes two girls a year, but she’s both trans and brown skinned, so it’s a double diversity.
Until Tara is told she won’t be accepted. Not because she’s not smart enough or sincere enough, but because she’s not, er, what the Sibyls want. Because she’s not quite their kind, you understand? Unfortunately, Tara does, and accepts the rejection with what modicum of pride she has left. However, that rejection sparks a movement, one Tara isn’t a part of, one taken up on her behalf. One she doesn’t want to be a part of, until she’s given no choice.
This is a ride of a book and, at the end, I was left feeling wrung out. Not in a bad way, but after all the drama, the tension, the horrible, awful, no-good people doing incredibly shitty things, I wanted and needed some giant cathartic happy ending, and didn’t get it. Because this book isn’t a fantasy novel; it’s a contemporary novel taking place in today’s world, in a red state, where the transgender child of two immigrant parents can only do so much, can only allow so much because a giant, public, political battle with thousands of people rallying in support might do more harm than good. Now, this book does have a … well, I’ll call it a happy ending. Tara ends up happy. She ends up with friends, confidence, and support. It’s an optimistic ending — or, rather, an optimistic beginning to the next step in her life which, as a 16-year old, is really just more high school. So maybe not that happy after all.
If Tara’s life were a book (I know, I know, just go with it),, she’d be a crusader, fighting for trans rights and active in all the right clubs and groups and social medias. Instead, she’s doing adequately at school and still frets that she isn’t on hormones, yet. All she really wants is to be … well, a girl. And part of that, along with the change to an all girl’s school where she’s surrounded by all things feminine, is to join the once-secret Sibyl society. Eventually, sure, college — like Smith or Wellesley, both of which are all girl’s schools. She wants friends, and she wants her body to match herself, to be beautiful and girly.
However, the Sibyl society wants girls with good grades and excellent extracurriculars — neither of which Tara has. Her friends, though, think she’ll get in on the diversity issue, since the Sibyls only have one black member at the moment. Before that, they had one Chinese girl. The history of the Sibyls is very, very white and very, very carefully cultivated, especially by Evangeline “Angel” Beaumont, whose family is very involved with Ainsley, and who oversees the awarding of a generous scholarship, which also comes with membership to the Sibyls. Money which, yes, Tara could use, but she’d be willing to accept membership in the Sibyls even without it, because she wants to belong. As a girl, not a token for diversity and inclusion.
Felicity, Tara’s crush, is Angel’s sister. She’s beautiful, clever, and — in Tara’s eyes — almost flawless. She’s also a fierce defender of her cousin, Liam, the only other publicly transgender person in Ainsley, which is awkward, since he isn’t a girl, but the education at Ainsley is better and his parents haven’t exactly given him a choice. Felicity is a dreamer, and someone who likes to stir the pot just a little. When Tara looks like she might take a safer route and pick a safe subject of her interview question, Felicity sighs but supports her, even while gently egging her on to be brave.
When Tara is unfairly kept out of the Sibyls, it’s Felicity’s friends, Hecuba and Strife, who help keep Tara’s spirit up. They, more than anyone else, get her. She’s a friend to them, and never once do they treat her as anything other than a girl. Strife is another pot-stirrer, constantly asking Tara when she’s going to confess her feelings to Felicity, and Hecuba is a steady rock, encouraging Tara to think before leaping, to consider all angles. And Tara certainly needs that rock.
Tara’s parents, both in the United States on visas, with their chances of citizenship now under question thanks to the Republican president and their state’s Republican governor, do their best to understand Tara. While they still on occasion misgender her, they are quick take correction, and it’s clear that both love her very much. When all of the chaos goes down with the school, Tara’s mom is more than ready and willing to get a lawyer and go to the Washington Post. Even knowing the risks they face, both of her parents refuse to let anyone threaten their child … until social services shows up.
Because this is a contemporary book, taking place in today’s world, the real life implications of having their daughter taken away from them simply because they allow her to be a girl, a government that might kick them out of the country because they allow her to transition — another reason they haven’t been quick to consider hormones, even though Tara knows that if she pushed, they’d give in — that even a good lawyer might not be able to protect them from having their daughter taken away from them, both Tara and her parents can only go so far, can only do so much. It’s not, perhaps, satisfying, but it’s real. And because of that, it’s hard to see a character go through so much and not get the victory they so rightly and richly deserve; that there’s no grand smackdown for the TERFs, for the bigots, for the hateful people. Instead, there is a resolution, and one that works within the framework of the story and the current situation the United States is in. But it did leave me tired and sour. Tara is stronger than I am, able to take the small victory with grace, and I admire the character for it.
The writing is good, the characterization is strong, but the pace does tend towards a slow and leisurely path. A lot of side conflicts are resolved off page, with any apologies between those characters not present in the book, which I regret. Liam, who is an activist for the trans community, used Tara’s situation — used Tara — and it soured their friendship. I would have liked to have seen that conversation.
This is a coming of age story more than it is a truth, justice, and vengeance story, and works very well, as such. Personally, I did enjoy reading it and do very much recommend it.