Review of I Was Born for This by Alice Oseman
I Was Born for This
by Alice Oseman
Funny status update concerning this book and my friend hoping to give it to me as a present. But ever since I kicked off my year with Alice Oseman’s sublime Radio Silence, I was ready to pre-order I Was Born for This. I was slightly more hesitant to dive in after being disappointed by Solitaire, so let me start by saying that Oseman has won me back over. This is a great book.
Told in alternating chapters by Fereshteh “Angel” Rahimi and Jimmy Kaga-Ricci, I Was Born for This is about the “love” fans have for their heroes, and what that actually entails. Jimmy is a transgender member of a boy band trio (The Ark). Angel, just turning 18, is a diehard Ark fan—at least, online. In person she makes do with talking about whatever her other friends talk about. So she’s excited to go to London and meet her online friend Juliet IRL for the first time, then accompany her to The Ark’s O2 show. Jimmy, meanwhile, is having cold feet about signing a new contract that promises more success and fame for The Ark—but longer, more arduous tours and performances too. Oseman gradually brings these two characters together while examining what it means to have your beliefs and desires challenged.
Angel is a really interesting character because she’s quite flawed. She goes into her week with Juliet with all these pre-conceived expectations. Then, when the universe doesn’t bend itself to her whims, she’s slow to adjust those expectations. I like how Oseman captures the way in which a lot of people (myself included) have this kind of latent social anxiety: we don’t always get uncomfortable around various sized groups of people, but sometimes we build up expectations in our mind that, when unmet, make it difficult for us to enjoy ourselves socially. In this respect, although I’m older than Angel and don’t share her gender, religion, or other background, I can definitely identify with the experiences she has here. Yes, it’s rude the way Juliet invites Mac without telling Angel. No one is an angel (pun intended in this book)—but Angel doesn’t handle it well, and she acknowledges this and learns from it, and I love that.
I also like the nuance of Jimmy’s character. In general, Oseman does her best, I think, at creating three-dimensional band members—although Rowan and Lister are slightly less well-rounded than Jimmy, I’d say. Jimmy’s anxiety is far more pronounced than Angel’s (and ironically he is much more in the public eye), and I really like how Oseman portrays the way his anxiety mounts. In the particularly memorable bathroom scene, the way the perspective jumps from Jimmy to Angel and then back and we can see them reacting to the way the other is acting … ugh, it’s good. Oseman’s writing, the way she narrates and develops each scene, is on point here.
Both Jimmy and Angel are flawed characters, then. They also have identities that the author doesn’t share. I like how Jimmy being trans and Angel being Muslim is each a part of their character but not a significant plot point. Firstly, that other type of story isn’t really Oseman’s to tell. And we need more stories with this kind of rep, where characters have diverse and often marginalized identities, but those identities are not themselves the focus of the story. I can’t speak to Oseman’s portrayal of these identities, but I can say that I like the way she tried to be inclusive without being tokenizing.
As far as the actual story goes … it’s just very human. It takes longer for Jimmy and Angel to meet up, versus what I expected from the way it’s described in the back of the book. Angel accompanying Jimmy on that little trip is … a little weird, I guess? But it leads to perhaps the best line of the book, where Jimmy’s grandfather observes:
I know he asked you for help … but the trouble is, while asking for help is always good, it’s impossible to keep relying on others to solve your problems for you. There comes a point where you have to help yourself. Believe in yourself.
This resonates with me not so much as someone who needs help (I do sometimes, of course) but as someone who is very eager to help his friends. “Being helpful” is a core part of my personality—yet, of course, sometimes I overreach or overextend myself. Sometimes I try too hard to help people, when really, there isn’t anything I can do (beyond being supportive). In this way, Jimmy’s grandfather reminds Angel and me, as kindly as possible, that we can’t solve other people’s problems.
Although I love this line, and I like Jimmy’s grandfather, I notice that Oseman casts two elderly people—Jimmy’s grandfather and Juliet’s nan—in the role of kindly, wise old person. These two characters are among the least well-developed of the cast, and it’s interesting that they are so similar in their roles.
Similarly, I’m not a huge fan of the climax of the story and Lister’s disappearance. Everything happens in a way that is a little too sickly-sweet-cinematic or after-school-special for my tastes. I understand what Oseman is going for, I think, and I’m happy with the overall resolution of the plot, but that particular set of events was less interesting to me because it felt so contrived compared to the rest.
I Was Born for This didn’t grab me quite as much in the feels as Radio Silence (then again, what book could?!). Nevertheless, it’s a solid story with two dynamic and interesting main characters. Once again, Oseman tackles issues of anxiety in young adults and the unrealistic expectations we put on ourselves as well as the world around us. She does it with empathy and some humour, and there is a lot more to like here than what I managed to express in this review, which I’m unfortunately writing over a week after finishing the book (so it goes).