Longtime Twitter follower of Hannah Moskowitz, first time reader. Why did I pick Not Otherwise Specified? No idea! This was the one that came up and got added to my to-read list. No regrets.
Trigger warning, obviously, for discussions of eating disorder and weight loss. Also for use of potential queer slurs, bullying, and depictions of controlling/manipulative behaviour from friends.
Etta Sinclair is a Black, bisexual girl at an all-girls school. Her decision to date (and then subsequently break up with) a (gasp) boy has alienated her from friend group, lesbians who collectively call themselves "the Dykes." Etta has also struggled with an undiagnosed eating disorder (hence the title) and attends group therapy sessions, where she meets a new friend—Bianca. Along with Bianca’s gay brother, as well as another friend who offers Etta a lust interest, Etta and Bianca tackle auditions for Brentwood. All of these events put a lot of stress on Etta, who’s really just trying to figure out what any teenager is figuring out: who am I? What do I want from life? Which relationships should I value and prioritize?
From the start, Moskowitz establishes Etta’s voice in a way that makes me nod my head and go, “Yes, I want to keep reading this.” I love that first line: “Time for the Etta-gets-her-groove-back party.” Etta is the right balance between charming and self-deprecating, yet Moskowitz manages to avoid making her sound like every other sarcastic teenage narrator we might be exposed to in this day and age. Etta is thoughtful, but you can also tell that she still has a lot of thinking to do—her understanding of her own identities, and the way she relates to other people like the Dykes, demonstrates she still has a lot to unpack and consider, a lot of maturing to do, which is expected for someone at her stage in life. Almost from page-one, Etta feels like a realistic and fleshed-out character.
Then we get into all the drama! And for a book that involves some intense bullying (to the point of assault), the drama actually feels very … low key? In a way, this feels like the obverse of Holly Bourne’s approach to YA, in that both are valid and equivalent yet the presentation is different. Bourne’s books build and build towards what you just know is going to be a single, emotionally-devastating climax. In contrast, Not Otherwise Specified has a series of dramatic encounters—the plot graph is more spiky than it is a single pyramid. The result is a rich experience with a lot to unpack, some of which isn’t really in my lane.
For example, I’m reading a lot of angry reviews from lesbians saying the use of Dyke and the portrayal of “all lesbians” as biphobic is harmful … and I can see where that’s coming from, sure. But I’m not sure how else the book would explore this issue of Etta being bullied by her former friends for the way in which she’s exploring her sexuality? Etta herself isn’t saying that all lesbians are bad or biphobic—she’s just having a rough time with this particular group of lesbians, no doubt compounded by the fact they’re at an all-girls school that doesn’t seem to have a very good anti-bullying policy. The bullying happens because Etta’s friends are behaving badly, not because they are lesbians. Nevertheless, I recognize that this whole issue is outside my own lived experiences, and so I could be missing a crucial dimension to this discussion. So just be aware that this might not be the book for you if this is something more critical to you.
I could have gone for a little more nuance in the way that Moskowitz portrays the Dykes’ activities and actions against Etta. It seems like Tasha is the most active, most forthright bully—but in my experience, when friend groups have a falling out like this, there’s always a moment here or there when at least one of the former friends is softer, or a bit wistful, regarding the good, ol’ days. Or perhaps that’s the role Rachel is supposed to serve. I do like the portrayal of Rachel and Etta’s relationship. It’s so rich and complex.
First, Moskowitz acknowledges how blurry the lines can get between platonic and romantic/sexual relationships among friends, especially when they're friends of the same gender exploring how to express their queer identities. Rachel is a best friend and also a lover. They are “experimenting” but also being incredibly vulnerable and intimate with one another. Their membership in this high school clique is a political statement as much as it is a relational one. So much of this happens before the book even begins; when Rachel re-enters Etta’s life during Act 2 and we learn more about her as a person, the pieces start falling into place. Rachel is a great example of how someone in your life can be a great and a terrible presence all at the same time. She made Etta feel so good, so high … yet she also gave Etta terrible advice, tried to control Etta’s behaviour based on what Rachel thought was good for Etta:
“I’m going to go,” I say. I don’t say, you’re a good person, Rachel, but you don’t want to be friends with me unless you can control me. There’s no point in saying it. I know it. And once I’m gone, she will too.
Still, I hope she comes and visits me sometimes. I’d like to get coffee with her.
Ugggggh this is so good! Coming as it does near the very end of the book, it’s such a great example of how Etta has grown throughout this whole experience. And it rings so true. Some people are shining beacons in our lives; some people are monsters. Many of the people we meet and befriend will not be one or the other but somewhere in between. Recognizing this complexity, and then being able to recognize when it’s happening in your relationships and react in the way that’s healthiest for you, is so important.
Similarly, Moskowitz ensures Etta is herself flawed and has lots of maturing to do. This is most obvious in her relationship with Bianca, of course. In many ways the two are very good for each other: Bianca is the one who unwittingly nudges Etta back into dancing ballet, while Etta bolsters Bianca’s self-confidence. Yet there is still a great deal of friendship turbulence here, compounded by what’s happening with Bianca’s brother and their parents. Etta’s behaviour towards the climax of the novel, the way she just acquiesces to Bianca’s demands to go out clubbing, but then realizes before it’s too late that she needs to be more responsible—not to mention that point where Etta confesses to us that she didn’t realize how sick Bianca actually was—that’s so powerful.
Not Otherwise Specified is a well-structured, deeply rich book, particularly when it comes to characterization. I didn’t even touch on Bianca’s brother, James, much, or Etta’s sister, or Etta’s relationship with her mom, or with Mason … there’s a lot more depth here than I can get into in this review. This book is under 300 pages!! I’m glad it lives in my local library, and hopefully some teens going through issues similar to Etta’s, who need to see themselves in a book, will find this one.