Book Report: Girl Mans Up

Published April 30, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros

Now that I’ve finished my class work for the semester (even though class won’t actually end until the 8th), I finally have time to read again.  So I’ve finished the next book for the challenge, though again I’m not sure which challenge to list it for.  It could work for challenge #2, “Read a debut novel,” or challenge #15, “Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.”  (For people living in other places, it might work for the within 100 miles or the over 5000 miles, but neither of those applies for me.)

This novel is the story of Pen(elope) Oliveira, a girl in high school in the (fictional?) town of Castlehill, Ontario.  She’s dealing with the usual teenage problems:  love, friendship, family, and making important decisions about how to become her own person (or if she even will).  What makes her story stand out from others is that she’s a lesbian, her family are Portuguese immigrants, and she’s always put out such a masculine vibe that people often mistook her for a boy.

From looking at the small blurbs on Goodreads and Amazon, I thought this was about her becoming (or just deciding to become) a transgender man, but that isn’t actually the case.  It’s more about how society’s gender definitions are antiquated and needlessly limiting.  In fact, I think many of the other characters in the story would be more comfortable around Pen if she was trans, because then she’d be conforming to social expectations (sort of), instead of being herself regardless of what everyone else thinks she ought to be.

I marked a couple of passages that really sum up Pen’s gender situation, but I think just the first one will get it across well enough:

Everyone wants something different from me.  It’s like one second, I should be a better dude.  I should stop being such a girly douche, and I should just man up.  Then, it’s the opposite:  I’m too much of a guy, and it’s not right.  I should be a girl, because that’s what I’m supposed to be.

The thing is, I’m not a boy, but I don’t want to be that girl either.  I just want everyone to screw off and let me do my own thing for once.

I should back up a bit on my previous statement.  The book isn’t about how society’s gender definitions are antiquated and needlessly limiting; that’s more the setting, the background against which the action takes place.  The actual subject of the book is…um…hard to describe in a few sentences without just giving a summary of the story.  I guess the best way to sum it up is to say that it’s about relationships — not just romantic ones, mind you, but about all the major types of interpersonal relationships:  family, friendship, and romance.

So, as a teen drama about interpersonal relationships, this is exactly the kind of book I don’t normally read.  Usually, I like to read books where the world needs to be saved, adventures need to be had, tyrants must be stopped, heists have to be perpetrated, et cetera.  (Well, that’s if you’re talking about fiction.  Non-fiction is another matter entirely.)  Therefore, I don’t have much frame of reference here.  But reading outside of your usual zone is one of the points of the Read Harder Challenge, so that’s cool.  And, more importantly, I did enjoy the book.  (In fact, I was sucked in so well it took me half the book or more to consciously notice that it was in the present tense.)

Pen  is very well developed as a character; she feels like a real person, both sure of herself and who she is and also still questing after her own personal identity at the same time.  (She is, after all, a teenager.)  The supporting cast are also well developed, though necessarily not quite as transparent to the reader as Pen, since we only have access to the inside of Pen’s head, and not everyone else’s.  The progression of events feels very natural, and like real life, there are decisions where you wonder what someone was thinking, and others where you feel like characters made a good choice.  Nothing world-shattering happens (not much even life-altering, in fact), just the passage of time and the events that accompany it.  (Though some of the events are naturally more important than others.)

…hmm.  I feel like maybe I should be saying more than that, but I can’t really think what else to say.  (My brain has yet to recover from that last stretch of class work, apparently…)

I guess really all I need to say is that here’s a book about a really kick-ass girl who faces social adversity on a daily basis, and if that sounds like something you’d like to read about, then you should look into this book.


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