I was 22 when I first moved away from home for a significant period of time. Even at that age it was hard to be away from everyone and everything I knew for so long. So I can understand Suzette’s apprehension, returning home to LA following a school year in New England. On top of the distance, she has to renegotiate her relationships, particularly with her brother. Little & Lion is a moving story about making the best decisions you can when it comes to helping the ones you love—and sometimes making decisions you regret. Brandy Colbert takes some standard tropes—girl comes back from a bad year at a boarding school, everyone feels different to her, not really sure where to go from here—and breathes new life into them by telling a well-crafted, character-rich story. I would like this to be a movie.
Suzette, known as the eponymous Little only to her stepbrother Lionel, has a lot to figure out. Her parents sent her to boarding school literally on the other side of the country, an action her mother expresses some regret over. Now Suzette has to decide if she wants to return to that school or stay in LA. If she stays, she will be closer to the struggles of her brother, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is having a rough time treating it. Suzette likes to think she has ways of reaching her brother, of helping him figure out what’s best. Maybe that confidence is misplaced.
Colbert has a talent for letting her characters wander through this narrative and discover themselves. Almost from page one, we know Suzette is questioning her sexuality. She’s might be bisexual, yet she hasn’t really committed herself to that label. She has very frank conversations with several people about this issue, and I love how each person provides slightly different feedback to Suzette, yet all are tolerant and accepting of her situation. Colbert models the plethora of ways on can be compassionate and, frankly, not an asshole when someone you care about comes out to you, especially if they are questioning. Each person Suzette talks to reaffirms that her sexuality should be a non-issue, and that her labels are hers alone to determine, to change in the future, to reject entirely if that’s what she chooses.
Although I really do love Colbert’s overall portrayal of sex and sexuality, her development of the subplots around Suzette’s romantic relationships leaves something to be desired. It’s great that Suzette is honest with one of her love interests about what she’s going through. With the other one though … not so much? Too much is left unspoken. It never really feels resolved, and I’m not sure Suzette demonstrates what she has learned from those moments. Colbert’s choice to have Suzette attracted to a male character and a female character simultaneously is bold yet quite challenging given the stereotypes that surround bisexual people. It’s not my lane to dissect this treatment, but there were scenes that left me wondering how bi readers will react to this portrayal.
Similarly, I don’t have the perspective to comment fully on the portrayal of mental health (specifically bipolar disorder) in this book. I do like the way Colbert handles the question of medication, although even there I could see room for more nuance. As far as Lionel’s characterization goes, the flashbacks really help to establish his personality and relationships with Suzette. Unfortunately, present-day Lionel is such a cipher. Part of me thinks this is intentional—we’re seeing Lionel as Suzette sees him, as this new unknown, this person her brother has become while she was gone. Again, though, I’m not sure this is sufficient to avert problematic one-dimensional representation of mental illness. Who is Lion, other than someone who has bipolar disorder?
The same could be said for many of the supporting characters. Oddly, Rafaela gets a fairly developed backstory. The rest? Shoulder shrug. DeeDee shows up any time Suzette needs a lesbian perspective. Emil has Ménière's and likes to run and has always had the hots for Suzette? Everyone else is … there. Little & Lion is one of those books where you rub off the shiny veneer and realize that it’s more like a stageplay at heart: the sets are thin and unevenly painted, and the background actors are in the background for a reason. This is a criticism but not a complaint—like I said at the beginning of my review, I still think this book would make a lovely movie. But there’s a difference between dimension and depth when talking literature.
Little & Lion undeniably has elements of a coming out narrative to it. As noted above, however, it isn’t so much about coming out as it is about questioning more loudly. Colbert really understands that, for queer teenagers, grappling with your sexuality in a heteronormative world is part-and-parcel with growing up in general. That’s what Suzette does here; that’s really the main theme of the book: the weird, liminal space between being a child and being an adult. At seventeen, Suzette really is neither. She’s too old to be a sheltered kid whose parents call all the shots. Yet she is still too young and inexperienced to feel confident making all the decisions on her own.
Suzette’s interactions with Lionel, as well as the way Colbert dives into the family’s relationships in general, are so sweet and tender. There is so much love in Little & Lion, and not all of it is romantic and sexual, which my aro/ace self is so happy to see. To offset the darker parts of this narrative, Colbert offers us multiple moments of happiness and contentment in this blended family. This is where the book truly excels: when you let yourself get wrapped up in the emotional content long enough to feel invested in Suzette’s growth. And I think she does grow.
I like that the one plot thread is left dangling, unresolved. It felt appropriate, that we don’t learn what happens next. I’m not clamouring to know. I want Suzette to go forward, to make more mistakes, to find some successes. It doesn’t really matter to me who she ends up with, or even what she decides about who she is. That’s kind of the point: it’s not like, at seventeen, you can really have it all figured out. Sometimes the snapshot perspective that YA novels give us can be deceiving if we forget that "happily ever after" doesn't mean "happily static forever." Little & Lion leaves us with a reminder that nothing is constant, and I like that.