Title: If I Was Your Girl (2016)
Author: Meredith Russo
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, LGBT
Extent: 288 pages
Release Date: May 3, 2016
Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school in Lambertville, Tennessee. Like any other girl, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret. There’s a reason why she transferred schools for her senior year, and why she’s determined not to get too close to anyone.
And then she meets Grant Everett. Grant is unlike anyone she’s ever met—open, honest, kind—and Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself…including her past. But she’s terrified that once she tells Grant the truth, he won’t be able to see past it.
Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It’s that she used to be Andrew.
Let me just say first off that I believe, at a time where people are just starting to have open discussions on all things LGBT, If I Was Your Girl is an important book. It was written by a trans author, features a trans model on the cover, and is the story of a trans girl. If ever there was a book that actually helps diverse voices being heard, this book is probably it — but sadly, all of this doesn’t automatically make it a good book.
This book was a whole lot more light-hearted, a lot less emotional, and a lot easier than I expected it to be. The main character, Amanda, is trans and starting at a new school. Everyone thinks she is beautiful, and this is reinforced quite a lot by different people, for example:
“You’re new and you’re pretty. It’s not exactly rocket science.”
“I’m not pretty though.”
“Oh my God, whatever, yes you are. Jesus. The only thing worse than attractive people is attractive people who refuse to admit they’re attractive.”
And again by someone else:
“I know you’re one of the prettiest girls I’ve ever seen.”
And again by someone else:
“It was just that you were new, and pretty, and you just came in and got everything you wanted.”
And again by another someone else:
“The truth is that you’re my friend, Amanda. You’re one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever known, inside and out.”
It’s not that I don’t like pretty, good-looking protagonists; it’s just that there comes a point when this kind of thing feels a little too much for me. Her looks aren’t the only thing either — Amanda also makes friends and gets a boyfriend in what seems like minutes. At least three characters in this book explicitly declared their feelings for her, two of them in large, loud ways. She also ends up [spoiler] elected as the homecoming queen [/end spoiler] at her school dance later on.
Both Amanda’s parents are also incredibly supportive — with roadblocks, of course, but by god did they try. There is some tension with her dad, but I never once doubted that he just wants her to be happy. I’m not saying I want to see Amanda struggle more (OK, yes, I guess I want to see her struggle more); all I’m saying is that the plot seems very flat and lacks tension because of this.
“You can have anything,” she said, “once you admit you deserve it.”
Sadly, the characters in this book are also very flat, not to mention one-dimensional. Amanda didn’t have much of a personality — the only thing defining her was that she was born male. Her friends can also be defined by singular characteristics: Layla as the mother hen, Anna is a conservative Baptist, Chloe as the [spoiler] closeted lesbian [/end spoiler]. They seem perfectly interchangeable to me and probably could’ve been condensed into one character.
Grant, the love interest, isn’t much better. There is a bit of insta-love happening between Amanda and him, although to be fair to Russo, she did try to back this by having these two meet multiple times before they got into a relationship. Personally, however, these previous interactions were quite shallow and short — Amanda hadn’t known Grant for that long before she started ‘falling in love’ with him.
I hadn’t expected this, hadn’t planned for it, wasn’t ready yet. But my lips were still warm from the kiss, and I felt more alive than I ever had. Happier than any medication had ever made me.
I think the majority of my problem is because I had gone in with very specific expectations of what I wanted this book to be. I wanted it to be heart-breaking and emotional and revealing. I wanted Amanda’s relationships with the people around her to be difficult, and then to grow and develop from those obstacles. I wanted for me to sympathise with Amanda, to feel sorry for the struggles she went through and to root for her.
But none of these things happened, because everything works out and falls to place very easily. I’m happy for Amanda as a character, but as a reader, I’m not challenged. I’m bored. I’m uninterested… and I would be saying this too were this not an LGBT book and the protagonist also gets it their way every time.
Do I think this is an important, diverse story? Yes, absolutely, 100%. But did I enjoy my reading experience and find myself coming back for more? Not really, because as a fictional story, it kind of failed. There was too little tension, the character development was shallow, and the romance was lacklustre at best. Would I recommend it to other readers? Well, let me just leave you with this author’s note:
I’m worried that you might take Amanda’s story as gospel, especially since it comes from a trans woman. This prospect terrifies me, actually! I am a storyteller, not an educator. I have taken liberties with what I know reality to be. I have fictionalized things to make them work in my story. I have, in some ways, cleaved to stereotypes and even bent rules to make Amanda’s trans-ness as unchallenging to normative assumptions as possible.
If I were to sum up my thoughts on this book into one sentence, I think it’d be something like this: If I Was Your Girl is an important book, but it is not a good story.
NOTE: I wrote this review right before accusations of Meredith Russo raping and abusing her wife, Juniper Russo, surfaced on May 26, 2016. I debated against publishing it, but I ended up doing so because reviews for me are still about the book, not the author, and I stand by my opinion regardless.