Tuesday, April 3, 2012

YA Book Review: Keeping You A Secret by Julie Anne Peters

Keeping You A Secret by Julie Anne Peters is a young adult novel about coming out and first love. It is engaging and upsetting and delightful, and entirely relevant.

Holland is a smart successful teen, who has fallen into a depressive rut, loves her boyfriend - but only as a friend, is being railroaded by her mother into overachieving, hates her weird, goth stepsister and is generally frustrated, when she is captivated by a new girl.

Cece is an out lesbian, whose mother doesn't really accept her, and left her last school in hopes of a more accepting one. She's brave and lovely and tries to start her own gay support group at the school - which is promptly shot down by the student council.

Holland and Cece (Cecilia) fall almost instantly in love, though it takes them a while to get around to admitting it. Holland, our protagonist, didn't even realise she was gay, while Cece was worrying over her mixed signals and then waiting for Holland to be ready. They spend a lot of time secretly stalking each other (from Holland's perspective, she doesn't learn about Cece's interest until later), going to class, and finally bonding, before falling into kissing and (implied) sexual relations.

The setting is modern (it was written in 2004) and a 'realistic' mix of acceptance, homophobia and legal anti-discrimination laws. Holland never consciously considered that she might be gay, and her local culture probably contributed to that. She has absolutely no problem with Cece being gay, is in fact somewhat fascinated (though it might be because it's to do with Cece), is astonished to discover that gay people exist at her school, doesn't even consider that people might be homophobic (never having run into it, and assuming the best) until it happens... in many ways, her turning out to be lesbian was almost disappointing, as it undermined the 'accepting gay is normal' message, turning it into 'she accepted gay people because she was gay'. On the flip side, she genuinely didn't recognise her attraction for a while, really did want to do good and was an openminded and accepting person, and her acceptance was backed up by other people (for example, a crowd that showed up to apologise for homophobic vandalism).

She also lives the awful nightmare of her mother finding out the wrong way, over reacting, and throwing her out of home. It really brings home hard just how fragile 'normality' is, and how insecure teenagers' situations can be. She survives, but it isn't perfect. She ends the book on a not-entirely-happy-ending, with her girlfriend, tentatively discovering ways forward, but still in a shaky situation. This matters, a lot, because 20-40% of homeless teens in the USA are homeless because they are LGBTQ (see 2007 report).

It had one of the best experiences of coming out, all the problems involved and all the reasons to do it that I have ever read. It wasn't a very good experience, and it didn't go the way the two girls wanted, but they thought it was worth it in the end. Essentially, Cece asked Holland to keep quiet for a while, nominally because of the danger it would put Holland in, but people become aware they are dating very quickly, sending Holland's social reputation into a destructive spiral. The impact is compounded by the fact that Holland is trying to keep her word to Cece, yet wants to come out, and feels that she should be telling key people herself. Later, Cece shares her experiences and opinions of coming out, which it rang very true, with very good reasons to do so, even with the actual consequences of Holland's disastrous coming out still fresh in their, and our, minds.

The biggest problem I had with the story was the way it suddenly ended. Just as I was really getting into the characters and wondering if Holland would go to college and worrying about her mother, and getting excited about the prom... it stopped. Typical of a 'coming out' story, I suppose, in that as soon as the coming out is over, we have to stop reading, rather than following the characters. Still, it felt unfinished. Of course, if I'd been less into the story, I may not have noticed. Technically, it was a happy-ish ending, with the two girls still very much in love, their relationship looking stable, and with options for the future.

While our characters are in their final year of high school, more or less, it's entirely appropriate for younger readers and is definitely recommended.

  • 2004 Stonewall Honor Book, awarded by the GLBTQ Round Table of the American Library Association
  • 2003 Lambda Literary Award Finalist
  • Amelia Bloomer Project, 2004 List of Recommended Feminist Books for Youth, awarded by the Feminist Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association
  • Best of 2003 Young-Adult Books, Borders Books and Music
  • 75th Anniversary Edition, New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age
  • American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults, 2004 Nomination
  • An Original Voices selection by Borders Books and Music. Original Voices recognizes innovative and ambitious books from new and emerging talents, as well as outstanding works from established authors.
  • 2003 Book Sense Summer Reading List for Teens
  • An ALA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults
  • First recipient of the Alphabet Award, selected by readers in Ocean County, NJ

Keeping You A Secret is not yet available on Kindle, only in dead tree format.

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