Monday, 13 July 2015

Review: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz

Etta is sick of her hometown in Nebraska, and can't wait to get out of there. Feeling alone as she's been ditched by ex-clique the Dykes due to her relationship with a boy (she's bisexual, they're lesbians and many of them are biphobic), she turns to Bianca, a younger girl in her eating disorder support group for friendship. But while Ella's heart lies in ballet - which she's given up on due to not being tiny or white enough - Bianca dreams of getting into the New York theater academy that both girls are auditioning for. Bianca is straight, but her brother James is dealing with problems of his own, hiding his sexuality from his religious family. Can Etta and Bianca save each other?

There's an extremely interesting post here from editor TS Ferguson about characters who aren't defined by their sexuality - following on from Robin Talley's tweets about the problems with the phrase 'just happens to be gay'. For me, TS's post made me think of Etta immediately, because while her sexuality is a huge part of the book, and a cause of the major conflict between her and the Disco Dykes, she's defined by so much more than this. Her race, her sexuality and her eating disorder all contribute to her character, but so do her protectiveness of her younger sister and of Bianca, her long-standing friendship with Rachel, her dancing dreams, and her incredible personality. They all combine to make her a really superb character and her voice is breathtakingly good. I also loved her confidence in herself - she's a very proactive character, seeking help for her eating disorder without being pushed to do so, and being well aware that she's in the right in the argument with the Dykes. She is the strongest character in the book by a long way, although Bianca is another interesting one, struggling to reconcile her religious beliefs with her brother James's sexuality, while James, his friend Mason, and Rachel are all well-written as well.

The way the relationships develop through the book is another major plus, especially Etta and Bianca's, but also the really complicated long-term friendship that Etta has with Rachel and Etta's interactions with Mason, who is clearly significantly more into Etta than vice versa.  I think it's Ella's narration which made me really fall in love with the book because of the strength of her voice, but in addition to that, there's a strong plot which kept me guessing and doesn't go the obvious route.

An absolutely fantastic read, highly recommended!

Slightly more spoilery bit - stop reading now if you want to go in with little knowledge of the ending!
I love books which end up happily for all the characters I like, leaving me reassured that they'll have a great future. This doesn't quite do this - but it's the right choice. Because with problems as big as Bianca, Etta and James have, it would have felt like a cop-out to wave a magic wand and have them all miraculously sorted out. We get an ending that's as happy as it could be without cheapening the impact of all that's come before, I think. We know that these characters have a long, hard road ahead of them - some even more than others - and Etta even specifically acknowledges this, when talking about the possibility of Bianca hiding food - saying "at some point in this she probably will". But they're ON that road to recovery/happiness, at least, at various different stages, and it feels like a wonderful, hopeful way to end the novel.

Speaking about wonderful ways to end the book, there's a climactic speech from Etta which is one of the best I've read in a long time, and a gorgeous gesture of friendship at the end which made me smile massively. As I said above, a really fantastic read!

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