Ohhhhh, this book. I have so many complicated feelings when it comes to this book. I love it for some aspects and utterly detest it for others. My partner wanted me to read it because it's very similar to my own experiences when it comes to the family aspects of the book and, boy, was she right. Every time I read the bits having to do with the main character's family, I had to suppress a scream for how eerily similar it was to my own family. *Shudders* But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you a little about this book.
The story follows Pen, a girl trying to figure out who she is and dealing with everyone else's bigoted way of thinking. The story itself sounds simple enough but the experiences she and her friends go through are a lot more complex and harrowing than that. She is in the middle of questioning her identity whilst also having to deal with family issues and a "friend" with a habit of manipulating those around him. We see Pen grow from someone who allowed everyone push her around to actually defending who she is. I enjoyed seeing her transformation throughout the book.
I really like that M-E Girard did an excellent job writing about queer teenagers and the many problems they must face especially with society being the way it is. I really like how she described what it's like having gender dysphoria though the term is never used within the narrative. It's something very personal to the individual experiencing it and it's something difficult to describe to those who "don't get it." I adore these parts and a part of me wish that the topic of gender was the only thing that was discussed within the book. Because when it ventures into talking about sexuality, it does a horrendous job.
I really hate the way sexuality is described in this book. The f-word is used multiple times throughout the narrative as if it's totally normal to look down on someone who is attracted to the same gender. Pen herself says it multiple times with disgust. I know she has a different view when it comes to her own gender but thinking it's "disgusting" being attracted to the same gender bothers me more so since it's never questioned within the book. This is why I can't really recommend this book 100% because it's great representation when it comes to gender, but it's horrible when it comes to sexuality. There's some self-homophobic hatred when it comes to Pen and it's never resolved in the book. It's a shame.
Another thing I feel the book got right was how Girard described what it's like being from a Portuguese family. I, myself, come from a Hispanic family and the two are similar when it comes to culture and beliefs. Both believe that "respect" matters more than "self-preservation" and it's not a healthy way to live which is why I kept having flashbacks to conversations I had with my own family whenever I read passages containing Pen's family. My parents are all about the "repeito" also. The amount of times I wanted to slam my head against the wall listening to them contradict themselves because respect only applies to them and no one else. Ugh! I can't! These parts were infuriating but they were also good for Pen to grow as a person. Because before this, she was a weak pushover.
Which brings me to her friendship with Colby. He is a douchebag. He uses people as he sees fit then throws them away when they are no longer "useful" to him. And Pen knows how much of a jerk he is... but she does absolutely nothing to confront him. She allows him to treat her, her girlfriend, her friends, like shit because "that's what it means to have loyalty." I feel it took Pen a really long time to finally stand up for herself, but I also think it was necessary for her to take as long as she did. There are a lot of people out there who are trapped in toxic relationships and, to them, they can't see a way out until it's too late. Pen's progression with Colby is realistic if a bit infuriating. However, I'll be honest, it was difficult to get through this book because of a lot of the decisions Pen took just because Colby told her to do so.
In short, this book was definitely a challenge to get through. I really liked some aspects but the majority of this book really made me upset. So all I can say is if you want to read good representation about gender identity, then this is a pretty good read. However, if you're looking for good book talking about sexual orientation, this is a poor example of one. If you do decide to pick it up, remember this book contains slur words, homophobia, drug use, and abusive relationships. If you can read about those topics, then I really hope you end up enjoying this book far more than I did.