Tuesday, May 8, 2012

YA Book Review: Pretend You Love Me (Far From Xanadu) by Julie Anne Peters


Pretend You Love Me, orginally published as Far From Xanadu, is another lesbian coming out book from Julie Anne Peters (who has, so far, done pretty well in this category).

Set in tiny Coalton, Kansas, it's different from the normal coming out offerings. Our protagonist isn't an overly thoughtful, smart, sensitive girl. She's a rural hick, a jock, with a dysfunctional home life, no real experience of the world, with two competing dreams; famous softball player, or singlehanded saviour of her family's local plumbing business. She spends most of the book deluding herself over a straight girl, but comes out of it the better for it.

This is a book as much about living in a small town and figuring out what to do with your life, and going for your dreams, as it is about being gay. Sure, being gay makes the small town thing a bit harder by severely limiting the available dating pool and that's a pretty big theme throughout the book. Somewhat unusually for lesbian YA, the book has a nice major subplot involving her gay friend's own romance.

We meet 16 year old Mike Szabo and get an introduction to her life; her dad committed suicide a couple of years back when she was fourteen, her brother Darryl is a terminal loser (in his twenties and obviously having just a tough a time of it as she is, though Mike doesn't see that) and her mother is a obese, terminally depressed woman who hasn't spoken to Mike for two years. And then Mike goes to school (which she has never missed a day of, to give you an idea of what she's like), and new girl Xanadu swishes in and hits her in the hormones harder than Mike hits the ball in softball. And that's pretty hard. From that moment on, poor Mike is basically a drooling idiot for completely straight Xanadu, who leads her on like crazy.

Xanadu... I did not like much, from the start. It was pretty obvious that Mike had fallen, and fallen hard, because Xanadu was the prettiest thing she'd ever seen. And new. And paying attention to Mike. And oh so sophisticated. Xanadu has been sent away from her big city life because she started dealing drugs, and got into major trouble for it. She doesn't care for her new life, and mocks pretty much everything that Mike considers normal. But, if only because there's no one else around, and she's the type who needs attention, she adopts Mike as her new best friend and proclaims that she's swearing off boys. A day later, she discovers a local boy, goes after him like a shark, and leaves poor Mike panting after her. It was quite nice to find out that I hadn't wasted all that knee jerk suspicion for nothing.

Around the brain buzz induced by her first crush, Mike deals with her future mostly by ignoring it, and trying to resist the increasing push from all sides to go after her suppressed softball dreams. 

Apart from the 'masculine' name (real name Mary Elizabeth), Mike is extremely butch, downs protein shakes, works out fairly obsessively, does manual labour of the sort statistically done by men and has a room full of 'nudie' posters. She also dresses in boxers and dreams of continuing her father's plumbing business. I didn't actually notice this initially, probably because I 'knew' Mike was a lesbian so strongly, but we don't actually find out her gender until after Xanadu starts flirting with her, and she realises. Which changes the implications of their first meeting a fair bit, as Xanadu saw pretty clearly how taken Mike was with her and encouraged it. After she realises Mike is a girl, she's perfectly comfortable with that, but stops flirting... openly. She's quite happy to encourage Mike's attention though.

 Mike is brusque, has a stereotypical teenage inability to read others, a raging chip on her shoulder about being a 'charity case' and is overly practical, to the point where she refuses to even dream about playing softball after she's too old for the school team. A lot of this is exacerbated by her father's suicide and the complete lack of money for funerals and softball camps it came with. She was refreshingly different from a lot of coming out protagonists, actually, who tend to be slightly introspective, scholarly, thoughtful types, though this meant that I had more trouble identifying with her. She often came across as quite insensitive towards her family; while she saw quite clearly that her mother was 'self medicating with food' she had no real sympathy towards her, and she wasn't able to perceive how much her brother was suffering, o that he obviously cared about her. The fact that none of them really talked didn't help, and when her and her brother did finally have a heart to heart, it opened her eyes a fair bit, building their way to something better.

The inner turmoil actually obscured what Mike was like to be around for a while; obviously most everyone liked her, but you couldn't see why from inside her head. I had to stop and think about it, and realised that outwardly, she was honest, highly dependable, trustworthy, generally friendly to people - although not talkative, and a local sports hero (which was pretty major in a small town), and a classic case of 'doing good despite tragedy'. And apart from that, most of the anger and misery was a recent thing, in the last couple of years, and the only people who really saw it were her brother and her mother.

Mike's best friend is Jamie. Jamie's got a lot of the same problems, relationship-wise, but a very different outlook on life. People-wise, he's a lot smarter than Mike, and figures Xanadu out long before she does (though, to be fair, the sound of her raging hormones was getting in the way a bit). A fairly significant amount of subplot is dedicated to Jamie's love life; initially his hopeless crushes on straight boys (fairly obvious crushes, handled politely by his love interests from all accounts), and then his internet love affair that blossoms into an actual long distance relationship. Small town gay people have a lot of trouble meeting others.

Religion exists, but only in the same way that it probably does for most small town folk - you go to church, it's 'there', but it's not a huge deal. Mike doesn't consider it an issue much one way or the other; she stopped going to church when her dad died, but that seemed more because there were a lot of things that she couldn't cope with after that. There's also a few sessions of getting drunk, which Mike participates in mostly so as to spend time with Xanadu - who steals most of the liquor from her hosts.

As for being gay... well, it was hard to figure out how much of it was Mike, but she wasn't very comfortable at being outed and didn't like labels at all. While our gay characters are stereotypical, they're also very aware of it. Mike dislikes the way Jamie lives up to the flamboyant stereotype (I suspect because of the attention it draws), and at one point, he comments on how statistically representative they are; one gay, one lesbian, one small town population quota filled. Whereas Mike herself is 'classic' butch.  I think a lot of her denial was just an extension of her general turmoil and the fact that there were no role models for her. When she meets another gay girl on another softball team, it obviously makes a fairly big impact on her, and Xanadu's casual assumption that she's lesbian also does some good. Generally, her and Jamie (who is very out) are accepted for who they are by the local community; perhaps it helped that they were unique individuals, and judged entirely on their own merits rather than being lumped in with a wider gay community, but nobody cared. In fact, Xanadu's boyfriend initially thinks that her and Mike are dating, and quietly backs off without any fuss.

Our protagonist is probably the sort of girl who would most benefit from reading this book! I have no problems with the pacing or the grammar and so forth - it's a reasonably polished, properly published story. And while it is 'yet another' coming out story, it deals with depression, family dysfunction, suicide, and being exploited by shiny, shiny new people. The themes of really-small town dating difficulties and the assumption that Mike will not necessarily be going to university after high school are also unusual. Overall, it's a pretty unique offering in the realm of lesbian teen fiction, and adds a nice bit of diversity to the library.

The titles make more sense after you've read the book; Mike really needs to get 'far from Xanadu' and she spends a lot of it wishing that Xanadu would 'pretend you love me'.

Interestingly, in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, our protagonist crushes for a while on a girl straight out of a small town like Mike's; while the girl was different in personality and style, she was clearly from the same demographic as Mike. Cameron herself was from a much larger, but still backwater, town; not a farmer, but still trapped in rural, religious country. So if you're looking for more rural America lesbian teen books, it's a good one to pick up next.

Awards
  • 2005 Rainbow Reads, selected by the American Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Round Table
  • Finalist for the 2006 Colorado Book Award in Young Adult Fiction
  • New York Public Library Books for the Teen-Age List 2006
  • Booklist Top 10 Romance Fiction for Youth
  • An American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults, 2006 Nomination
  • An ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2006 Nomination




Pretend You Love Me is available in paperback, hardcover and Kindle format [Far From Xanadu] on Amazon.

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