I pre-ordered this based on how much I enjoyed Camryn Garrett’s first novel, Full Disclosure, and Off the Record didn’t disappoint. From beginning to end, Garrett catapults us into an adventure of racism, sexism, and the price of fame, all from the point of view of a teenager with social anxiety and a way with words.
Josie is a journalist. She’s still in high school, but she has published articles for actual magazines, and now she has won a contest to do a cover profile of up-and-coming actor Marius Canet. Josie is over the moon that she gets to accompany Marius and others on a press tour across the U.S. Like Marius, Josie is Black, but unlike him, she didn’t grow in France and isn’t used to the social atmosphere of a press tour. This is all a little much for her anxiety, not to mention the fact that she finds Marius … um … attractive. So at first, Josie struggles with this assignment—and then she finds out that she might have the opportunity to start a #MeToo moment against the powerful director of Marius’ next film. Josie has to decide: is she the one to write this story? Does she want to put that out in the world? Can she live with herself if she doesn’t? And what will this mean, for her barely-began career as a journalist and for her barely-explored feelings for Marius?
Josie’s voice comes alive in this book and makes it so compelling. She is a smart and talented writer, and she’s dedicated too. I love the family dynamic that Garrett shows us: two loving but strict parents, older sisters who have a kid and are just starting in university, respectfully, a home to 3 generations. From this foundation, Garrett yanks us and Josie out of her comfort zone and into the world of the press junket. She saddles Josie with Alice, and we get a ringside seat to very real-feeling sister drama—Josie feels like Alice has copied her aspirations to go to Spelman College, and while we don’t get access to Alice’s perspective the way we do Josie’s, eventually we do learn more about how Alice feels about their bond and what has changed with Alice away. I admire how Garrett can weave all of these smaller subplots and character moments within the larger story.
And what of the #MeToo-inspired plot? I’m going to talk about the ending and then work my way backwards, and I’ll keep it vague to avoid spoilers. But if you get disappointed in the ending, just remember that Garrett foreshadows it all the way back on page 193:
“I want to believe happy endings can happen in real life,” I say. “I don’t know. Life is just so messy. But I think I can deal with all the torture and sadness as long as it’s okay by the end.”
This is the beauty of storytelling, whether film or literature: fiction does not need to hew to realism all the time. Fiction can tell stories that are fantastical. Or it can be more grounded while still offering hope, as Garrett does here. Is it realistic that a 17-year-old girl with only a few articles to her name is the one that an older actor approaches to write this story? Are her conversations with all these other women who claim Roy Lennox groped them, raped them, are they realistic? I submit that’s beside the point; what matters more is that they are aspirational. With Off the Record Garrett is creating the world which she wants to see in our own reality: a world where a young Black woman is making a difference with the power of her words, much as Garrett did in her first novel and is doing again here.
You know, this book probably won’t get as much hype as a book like The Hate U Give, and I want us to consider why. Don’t get me wrong; Angie Thomas is an awesome author, and if you read my review you’ll see my love for that book. But I think we white people have a tendency to get more excited about books about Black people that overtly discuss race and racism because these become “issue” books, and we can seem “woke” to be seen reading and discussing them. Off the Record is as much about race and racism as any book where many of the main characters are Black, and it is technically an “issue” book in the way it springs off the #MeToo movement … yet because the racism, the sexism, the misogynoir are subtler here, I think it would be easy to miss this story’s power. Both Starr and Josie are Black girls asked to bear witness to structural injustice. In Josie’s case, Lennox’s behaviour is structural because, like the real-life Harvey Weinstein and innumerable other predators in Hollywood and board rooms and workplaces all around, Lennox is shielded by the people around him who fear his power and privilege. These women come forward and accuse a powerful person of abuse and assault, and we don’t believe them. We call them liars. Why? Because accepting their truth means acknowledging that the system itself is rotten to the core, and that means we need systemic change, and that is too much for some of us to bear.
The way that Garrett examines these injustices through an intersectional lens gives Off the Record such incisive power. Marius is Black and therefore experiences racism and dismissal (in terms of his acting chops) that a white actor doesn’t. The director of the film Josie is covering claims colour-blindness, doesn’t see what the race of Marius’ character might have to do in a film that is “really” about being gay. Yet Marius also has male privilege, something Josie urges him to use to speak up against Lennox, hoping his voice might be heard and believed even if the women she has interviewed are not. This is just one small example of how Garrett belies the convenient stereotypes we often fall back on when looking at people as well as characters in our literature: oh, she’s Black; he’s gay; they’re in a wheelchair—nobody is ever one thing, one identity, one position on an axis of power/privilege. Off the Record reminds us that our power and privilege are constantly in flux depending on where we are, who’s in the room with us, and what the situation is.
This book is so sneaky. It starts like the puff piece that Josie is supposed to write about Marius. We think, oh, she’s going to have to get over her anxiety, open up to him, maybe they have a little fling and then they have to go their separate ways … it’s like perfect summer rom-com fodder. Then Garrett goes “bam, scandal time” and throws Josie—and by extension, ourselves—into the deep end fast enough to make our heads spin. With sharp dialogue and even sharper storytelling, Off the Record is easily one of my favourite books of the year.