Saturday, May 04, 2013

Not That Kind of Girl, by Siobhan Vivian

Natalie has learned a lot in her first three years of high school.  She's seen the way that when boys and girls get into trouble, it's the girl who gets all the blame.  Her best friend Autumn got humiliated that way in freshman year and she still deals with the shame of it!  If Natalie had her way, the girls would receive a special orientation session on watching your reputation.

Natalie is a strong-minded young woman, with good grades and the esteem of principal and her teachers.  She even wins the position of class president -- one of only nine girls to do so at her school.  Two things threaten her position:  the antics of a girl in the freshman class who challenges Natalie's notions of propriety and a whirlwind romance with a guy on the football team which Natalie must keep secret from the school at all costs to prevent the exact type of scandal from which she wants to protects other girls.

It's a strikingly insightful book about agency and self-identity.  On a broad stage, Vivian brings in the major debate between feminists who argue that women need to seize control of their sexuality and others who argue that women cannot "play the game with the boys" in a world that is so stacked towards patriarchy.  She then pitches the conflict in terms that young readers will understand -- the struggle between desire and reputation, and the anger and frustration that that struggle creates in the minds of young women.  Whether it's young Spencer's attempts to control the boys with her sexuality or Natalie's grasping for a safe space to experience sexual pleasure, it's powerful stuff and should give most readers food for thought.  Obviously girls will relate more readily to the material, but boys could stand reading it as well.

Natalie is a great character -- she's strong-minded, independent, and well-spoken.  Her positions make sense and are laudable -- it is easy to identify with her and even admire her.  So, watching her struggle and make mistakes is hard for the reader, even as it feels authentic and plausible.  There is that strong sense (maybe even a degree of horror at the realization) that we would do the same things in her position.  The ending (and ultimate resolution of Natalie's issues) comes on a bit too quickly and easily, but the point has been well-made by then:  when in the business of telling yourself "who you are" and "who you are not," you need to consider what you are trying to achieve.  Does labeling yourself and others bring you comfort or simply stress you out?  Siobhan Vivian's novel begs the reader to figure it out for themselves.

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