Tuesday, 9 May 2017

#CBR9 Book 43: "Weird Girl and What's His Name" by Meagan Brothers

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Lula and Rory are basically the "Weird Girl and What's His Name" of the title. Odd-ball teenagers in the little town of Hawthorne, North Carolina. They are best friends, sharing an interest for fantasy and sci-f, but their deepest and most abiding love is for the TV show The X-Files, being active in the online fan community and writing a joint blog where they analyse and comment on the episodes. Both have been abandoned by parents. Rory lives alone with his alcoholic mother, while Lula is obsessed with her missing mother, who at least left her to be raised by her supportive grandparents. That Lula's grandfather refuses to ever speak of his absent daughter or even allow her name to be spoken in the house doesn't dampen Lula's desire to find out more about her missing parent.

They share everything with each other, or so Lula believes. When she discovers that Rory tried out for the high school football team without telling her, not to mention the much bigger secret that he's been having an affair with his much older, divorced employer, she starts to question not only their friendship, but her own judgement and identity. Lula suddenly disappears, without a trace, leaving Rory to fend for himself - desperately wondering where his friend has gone, or whether she's even still alive? When Lula eventually returns, everything is different. Her grandparents no longer trust her and Rory won't even acknowledge her existence. Can they ever repair their friendship?

It's never easy being a teenager, what with all the hormones raging and the changes you have to go through. Working with teens, I thank my lucky stars regularly that I never have to go through adolescence again. For kids like Rory and Lula, who have a number of additional challenges on top of just being teens, it's extra difficult. Rory is gay in a small Southern town and it's not like there are a lot of guys lining up for him to date. Hence his boyfriend, who he genuinely seems to believe he has a future with, being his middle aged, recently divorced. They meet in secret, what with the statutory rape aspect involved and it's clear that deep down, Rory isn't as secure in the long-term viability of his relationship, or I think he would have confided in Lula. He clearly feels guilty about keeping secrets from her.

For all of Rory's difficulties, at least he's relatively secure in his own identity and sexuality. Lula is a lot more adrift, nursing more than one unhappy infatuation and questioning whether she's straight, bi or queer in some other way. The same night she discovers that Rory was keeping secrets, she has a series of unfortunate episodes that culminate with her disappearing from Hawthorne, without anyone who cares about her knowing where she's gone or why. As we find out in the second half of the book (the first is told from Rory's POV), it's not calculated callousness that causes Lula to leave town without leaving any hints of where she went - it's more the thoughtlessness and obliviousness of youth. She is in turmoil, desperately needs a change and goes about making that change for herself, without considering the long term consequences or those she leaves behind.

The second half of the book, from Lula's POV, alternates between her time away and her new life back home in Hawthorne. Upon her return, she obviously has a lot of trust to rebuild with her grandparents and she's literally friendless for a while, as Rory has been forced to adapt to a life without her and is not interested in letting bygones be bygones. Lula hurt him deeply by running away and it's understandable that they can't just pick up where they left off. Because she missed a great deal of school, Lula opts to take her GED rather than having to retake a whole year of high school. She makes a connection with a girl in one of her classes at community college, but it's nothing like the friendship she had with Rory.

This has been reviewed by several Cannonballers, including Narfna and Baxlala, both of whom tend to share my taste in books. I must admit that I did not have the same X-Files obsession as these two ladies, but I was a pretty fantatical follower of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (true story, I just this weekend unpacked the last few boxes after our move more than a year and a half ago, and in one of them, I found a large file folder full of printed copies of episode scripts for seasons three and four. I suspect I will have printed those out while at University and have moved at least five times since then (including to a different country) and yet I still had them after all this time) and while the exact details of the fandom may differ, I suspect the general idea is the same. I absolutely remember the intense devotion, almost counting the hours between episodes, the plot speculation, the anticipation, the shipping.

Reading about these LGBTQ teens, I once more feel my extreme privilege of growing up cis-gendered and straight. Being an awkward, socially inept teenager whose interests mark you as an outcast is bad enough. I was really never a "popular" girl, but I was lucky enough never to be that much of a target for bullies either. Nor was I ever alone in my weirdness, I always had a little group of oddballs to be unpopular with. We didn't care that we weren't invited to parties or whether boys liked us, we wanted to stay at home and read our massive fantasy tomes and discuss our TV shows instead. As long as you're not entirely alone, being seen as weird and being largely ignored by the crowds can be quite nice. But Lula and Rory really only have one another and when that friendship fractures, they are both helpless and adrift. It was all rather heart-breaking to read about.

As with the best YA fiction, the characters in this book all felt like they could be real people. There are no Mary Sues here, both Lula and Rory and the people around them are actual characters with a number of flaws. There were times when I wanted to shake either or both of them (especially Lula, that running away stunt was NOT well thought out), but mostly I wanted to hug them and I am glad that both of them, while they don't exactly start out with the best of support networks around them, end up in a better place than they began.

I apologise for the rambling nature of this review. I liked the book, and really think more people should take notice of it, especially anyone who's been part of any kind of fandom or felt like an outcast for one reason or another while growing up. I'm glad I took the time to read it.

Judging a book by its cover: I must admit that if I saw this in a bookshop or on a library shelf (do the young 'uns use libraries any more? I hope so), I'm not entirely sure I would pick it up. The silhouette of a girl's face with what appears to be smoke inside it isn't exactly all that inviting - there is very little to draw the eye here. That seems like a poor choice on the publisher's side.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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