This review contains minor spoilers regarding some characterization but nothing about the end of the book itself.
Moving to a new school, for any reason, in one’s senior year can be tough, especially when that school is in a different town and involves living with a dad you haven’t seen in six years. In If I Was Your Girl, Amanda does exactly this. Amanda is transgender, and over the past few years she was bullied and then assaulted at her previous high school, subjected constantly to homophobic and transphobic language and actions. Over the past year she has been out of school and transitioning, and now she starts at Lambertville, finally presenting her gender the way she wants. As she attempts to acclimate to high school and all the attendant social pressures, Amanda must also decide how open she wants to be, and which people she wants in her life.
Perhaps a good word to describe much of this book would be tension. In her portrayal of Amanda’s move, Meredith Russo highlights how tense and guarded Amanda must be nearly 24 hours a day. She can’t even really be comfortable and relaxed around her father. There is a six-year wound that must be healed, and he is barely coping with her transition. Plus, as we learn through the flashbacks interspersed, Amanda’s father played an important role in rejecting her gender identification and enforcing masculinity. In school, even though no one knows her secret, Amanda’s back is constantly up. It would be even if she weren’t trans: she is a new person, and she is a new girl. Like, she’s in Lambertville High for less than a day before the boys come sniffing around like she’s a piece of fresh meat on display.
I’m still looking forward to reading more YA books that don’t feature a big honking dramatic romance, but hey, that’s not this book, and that’s OK. At least Grant, for what it is worth, is a refreshing break from the kinds of boys we often get as love interests. Like Amanda, he has a secret and keeps ghosting her or avoiding her. The secret is a real issue, though, not just a plot device. Again, the word here is tension: both of them have a secret, and as they each dance around the other’s secret, they have to evaluate their feelings.
I’d also like to point out how Grant consistently and emphatically understands consent and respects Amanda’s boundaries. And it’s not just that he always stops when Amanda hesitates or says she wants to slow down—though he does—but he actually, literally asks permission to kiss her. Not once but at least twice (I’m too lazy to flip through the book to check all the kisses), he says he wants to kiss her and then asks, “Is that okay?” Because as romantic and sexy as one person pushing their lips against another person without warning might seem in movies, obtaining enthusiastic consent is even sexier. Kudos to Russo for making this point throughout the novel.
Even as Amanda slowly warms to the possibility of having a romantic relationship despite her initial resolution just to keep her head down, she is also forming female friendships. I appreciate that Russo does not privilege romance over platonic friendship here. While Amanda/Grant is an important and essential plot, so too is Amanda’s friendship with Anna, Layla, and Chloe. When those girls pull over next to the overheating Amanda and essentially bundle her into their car, the cynical reader is expecting something Mean Girls-esque to go down. Instead, these three accept Amanda and become trustworthy companions. Russo uses each girl to expose Amanda to a different facet of life in Lambertville and life as an adolescent woman. Through Anna, we see the strict rules imposed by incredibly pious Baptist parents and understand that, as difficult as Amanda’s life has been up to this point, other people face comparable struggles and even more closed-minded homes. Layla is the mother hen of the group, constantly doling out encouragement and advice, whether it’s regarding Amanda’s choice of bra for gym or the dress she should wear to prom. And Amanda feels an affinity for Chloe in particular, who is a sporty lesbian somewhat wary of exploring her sexuality given Lambertville’s conservative atmosphere—although this leads to some conflict between the two girls as well.
The nature of conflict in If I Was Your Girl might be the strongest thing it has going. Chloe and Amanda are a good example of this, with the latter not realizing how her behaviour regarding Bee hurts Chloe. Similarly, Amanda and her dad have a kind of “cold war” going on throughout most of the book regarding her dating. It’s heartening to see that thaw out, albeit with a temporary setback near the end there. But perhaps the most intriguing conflict is the one that develops between Amanda and Bee, who from the beginning looks like Amanda’s best hope for a friend who will understand her.
I loved Bee’s reaction when Amanda tells Bee she is trans. Bee asks, “So what’s okay for me to ask?” This is a great first question. When the topic of trans people comes up in conversation with fellow cis people, the discussion too often turns towards the topic of genitals, surgery, etc. There is a voyeuristic fascination with this idea that “real trans people” need to somehow prove they’re trans by getting surgery. And even if a cis individual doesn’t believe that, equating transgender with gender confirmation surgery still reinforces this harmful notion. Similarly, the revelation that someone is trans does not entitle one to ask that person all sorts of intrusive questions. So Bee’s reaction, her attempt to let Amanda set the boundaries while also showing that she is open to learning (instead of making assumptions), is refreshing.
It’s so interesting, therefore, when Bee turns. I don’t want to go too much into it (I promised no major spoilers). But I like that the antagonists of If I Was Your Girl are never the ones you think they will be (except Parker—because duh). Russo’s characters are seldom one-dimensional: each has their own issues or struggles, with parents or school or whatnot; and each has their own lines of cleavage. Although what Bee does is itself reprehensible, I liked watching her come to this decision that her actions are justified, that Amanda, in choosing to embrace certain conventional aspects of femininity and female friendship, has betrayed not just Bee but her own self. Some of the best villains in literature are the ones who feel that they have been wronged and that their actions are righting that wrong.
For all of its positive points, there were certainly parts of this book that annoyed me or threw up speedbumps as I read. Can we talk for a moment about this whole “Bee and Amanda don’t have to go to art class because the teacher was injured?” Speaking as a teacher, I’m pretty sure that if I stopped turning up to work, my school would notice. They would then assign a substitute to my classes, or at the very least, check to see who is enrolled in my classes. And Bee and Amanda cannot be the only two students taking art from this teacher in the whole school. So how does the school administration not notice this issue until the gym teacher randomly chances upon them hanging out when they should be in class? Some readers might feel I’m making a mountain here, but this plot point really just threw me.
Amanda’s father’s reaction near the end of the novel, the whole, “Well, I’m going to defend my daughter’s honour the only way I know how!” also did little for me. It stood out to me as something quite stereotypical, even given the southern setting. I understand that Russo is trying to show us how, over the course of the story, Amanda’s father has slowly started to accept the idea that he has a daughter. Nevertheless, it seems like a very convenient plot device as compared to some of the more deft characterization.
In general, If I Was Your Girl just tends to move too fast in many places. There is precious little time to breathe in this book and take stock. This is not a long book, and it makes the school year seem remarkably short. I’m not saying it needs to be 500 pages—I don’t necessarily think it needs to be longer at all, yet as it is, sometimes the book feels more like a collection of Important Scenes rather than a full, rounded-out story.
Finally, I agree with some of the criticism around the portrayal of Amanda’s transition, particularly the fact that she exists within a very special storm of privileged circumstances. You’ll notice, however, that I haven’t really talked much about this aspect of the book. It is perhaps the most visible, certainly the most hyped aspect of If I Was Your Girl, and it is indubitably and important one. But it is not the only part of the novel, and I wanted to critique the whole book, not just the thing it is most known for. Additionally, because I am cisgender, it isn’t really my place to talk about how I feel about Russo’s portrayal of a trans person. I’d rather point you in the direction of trans reviewers: this blog post is a general list of reviews of trans/non-binary lit by trans/non-binary reviewers—scroll down to the If I Was Your Girl section; there are four as of my writing of this. Each brings a slightly different perspective, because, unsurprisingly, trans people are just as diverse and prone to disagreement as any other group of people.
Instead of opining on that topic, then, I’ll address my fellow cis readers and critics. If I Was Your Girl is a good book—it may even be a good book about transgender issues. It is laudable that an #ownvoices book with a trans protagonist is getting so much recognition. But the very fact that the author admits, in an author’s note designed specifically for this purpose, that she pretty much rigged Amanda to present as little of a barrier to cis people’s interaction with a trans character shows that we have such a long way to go. The popularity and profile of If I Was Your Girl is not a turning point of acceptance and representation of trans people in literature and is not a reason to pat ourselves on the back. The real turning point comes when books like this one are so ubiquitous, when portrayals of trans people are so diverse, that they become unremarkable, that “my main character is trans” is met by a “So? Yours and [lists a hundred other books].”
We have a lot of work to do. But reading If I Was Your Girl is definitely a good start.