Picture (Im)perfect by J. S. Frankel: 0/10 Stars

 

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Nolan Goodman, star swimmer for Portland High, meets Mia Swarva at a swim meet and thinks he’s found his perfect girlfriend. They start dating, things are going well…and then he finds out that Mia was born Mark, and his concept of what constitutes relationships not to mention sexuality goes out the window. However, Mia has that certain something about her, and Nolan does his best to understand as he genuinely cares for her. Their relationship develops after a series of stops and starts, but when Mia is inadvertently outed on a social website, she and Nolan have to run the gamut of emotions as well as deal with the inevitable reaction to her being transgender. It is only then, that Nolan learns the true meaning of commitment.

 

 

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Overall Rating: 0/10 stars

Matt’s Review: 0/5 Stars

I’ve lost count of books like this now. Books where the research is laughably bad. Books where the basics haven’t even been covered, never mind the complex nuances you need to understand to get a portrayal of a character—any portrayal, of any character—right. Books where it is blindingly obvious there was no independent accuracy read done. This book is a mess of no research, poor research, or I-don’t-even-know-what-happened research.

This is a young adult romance. You could argue it’s new adult by the age of the protagonists, but…it’s not. It’s actually a really good argument against age as a divider. I’ll get to that but for the moment, we’ll just say it’s a YA romance between a cis boy (Nolan) and a trans girl (Mia). It’s attempting to be your standard “yay for the cis boy for being so enlightened as to date a trans girl!” story, it fails in all the usual ways, and it is a hot mess of bad research. I can’t even string my notes into a coherent narrative for this review, so…let’s just launch right in.

Children do not have gender reassignment surgery. This book supposes that Mia has had all the surgeries possible between the ages of 13 and 18. That would make her a child. And holy hell, I am sick to death of reading about children who’ve had gender reassignment surgery. Let me be very clear about this. It doesn’t happen. That child is still going through puberty. Even if they’re on blockers, they have to go through a puberty or all the surgery in the world is going to get very fucked up when they do. Children don’t get this part. This part is for adults. This is transphobic scare headlines in The Sun and that is it. Mia is not fully medically transitioned at her age no matter how much she wants to be. And given she even implies she wasn’t sure she was a girl until it was over? There is no doctor who is even close to reputable who would authorise her for medical intervention. No way in hell. And it’s this kind of rhetoric that leads to Mumsnet TERFs arguing that we’re trying “to trans” kids and we’re all abusers. Knock it off already!

The magical pass. I see this a lot, where the trans character just magically passes with no plausibility. For the vast, vast majority of us, our haircuts and a particular fit of clothes won’t do it on their own. We have small hands and feet, or a large Adam’s apple, our voices are a mess of assigned-gender-signalling, and shaving ads lie about how long their closest shave lasts. So when Mia appears in a string bikini and later explains Nolan didn’t notice she’s trans because she tucked, I nearly snorted my drink out of my nose. Come on. No amount of tucking in the universe is going to hide external junk if you’re wearing nothing but a string bikini. That is effectively naked. If I wore a pair of budgie-smugglers, I would not pass for a cis dude. Very few of us pass for cis when we’re naked.

Cis and straight are not the same thing. Seriously, this book has no idea what those two terms mean. There is genuinely a point at which a character says that people shout heterosexual at you in the street, like faggot or queer. Uh, no? No they don’t? That’s not a thing? Oh, and Mia is a heteronormative girl. She’s a pink-obsessed fashion model who’s seen most often in a string bikini in the narrative. She’s really pretty heteronormative! Trans people can be one hundred percent heteronormative, that’s totally a thing!

Outing people is not cool, and it is a big deal. There is a lot of casual outing of other people in this book. Mia does it too, just outing a gay kid to a guy she barely knows in what appears to be a pretty small town. Nolan keeps outing her to basically everyone he meets. There’s even scenes with Mia’s mum apologising for not telling Nolan sooner—like, okay, but…nobody actually has a right to any of this information. Ever. Including partners. It’s not like having a communicable disease where you should (and in some legal jurisdictions, must) tell your sexual partner before you do anything. It’s not like having to declare an allergy to your doctor. Nobody has a right to know if you are trans. And when trans people find out, as Mia does at the 53% mark, guess what? Game over. There’s no 47% left. That’s it.

The only thing I will give this book for its portrayal is the distinctly uneasy relationships and politics that exist within the LGBT world. Mia goes to an LGBT support group and to be fair, this is something I’ve seen before. The pressure to be an activist and the sneering if you don’t want to be out and proud and showering the place with rainbow glitter wherever you go. The disgust if you’re in a ‘straight’ relationship, or are straight yourself. The unprofessionally run organisations that exist, especially in more isolated areas where there’s not really any other choice. I’ve seen all of this before, I’ve experienced these people and these groups, that ‘wrong type of trans’ or ‘wrong type of queer’ mentality that exists both off- and online, and it sucks just as much as this book says it does. So, yeah, a point for that, even if the actual distinction between T and the other letters was distinctly lost.

Moving away from the research, I’d like to bring up a final point. Age. You could argue this book is new adult by the age of the protagonists, but…it’s not. It’s actually a really good argument against age as a divider. Frankly, these kids are not old enough to be engaging in this level of complex intimacy. Anyone who can’t say the word sex isn’t mature enough to be doing it, or even thinking about doing it. Sex is the bed bump thing. Sex is the horizontal bunny hop. Sex is the blanket bounce. I wish I were kidding or it were a joke but no, the male teenager telling us this story can’t say the word sex. Or even something very close, colloquially speaking, like sleeping with her or having a shag. Instead, it’s all very weird cutesy terms that…honestly remind me of my Catholic grandma trying to explain to five-year-old me how people in the Bible had so many kids when nobody mentioned storks being on Noah’s Ark. Neither of them have a cell phone, and…yeah, the explanation of the internet is pretty dodgy at best. If you are writing teenagers, you have to understand what they understand, and you have to take off your adult glasses when you’re writing them. Otherwise, it’s really obvious, really fast, and catapults the reader out of the story. Not that, frankly, there was one here to enjoy.

Honestly, this was a hot mess of plot issues and absent research, and there’s not even a likeable character or a cute story to save it. It was a terrible read, and I would not want anyone who’s trans to pick this up—or anyone who’s cis and looking to learn, for that matter. Find something else. Please.

Laura’s Review: 0/5 Stars

I’ve got a lot of feelings about this book, and none of them are good. I also have no idea how to organise them, to be honest, since I wrote a ton of notes while I was reading. So you’re getting those. Just as a warning, though, there are spoilers ahead.

I think this book was totally written for cis people, with no regards towards trans people at all. It’s all about how cis people would feel or how cis people would act when they encounter a trans person. And I got fed up with that pretty quickly.

Now, here we go:

The coming out scene, with Mia showing Nolan pictures from when she was a kid and telling him her dead name – without prompting – made me super uncomfortable. It feeds into the idea that trans people owe us their whole life stories and their identities before they transitioned. And they don’t, they really don’t. I would never dream of asking my trans friends about their deadnames! Also, did Mia’s mother really apologise for them keeping “it” a secret from Nolan? Seriously? Whether a trans person decides to come out and how and when they do it, it’s no one’s business but theirs, and they should never apologise for coming out, or for doing it.

We also have the moderator of the LGBT group Mia attends wanting Mia as their image for their website. She goes as far as to say “she’ll have to come out sometime.” No, if she doesn’t want to, she really won’t have to, and no one else should make that decision for her. That it is a trans woman trying to force another trans woman out of the closet, for the whole world to see…that’s especially bad.

Then, and I hinted at this before, this book is all about how cis people react to Mia being transgender: Nolan, Nolan’s mother, Nolan’s friends…The way his mother found out made me cringe. During the first 40% of the book we’d seen no sign of Mia being trans; in fact, she was passing as a gorgeous teenage girl from what we’re told in the text. But as soon as Nolan’s mother meets her, she thinks there’s something “wrong” with her and that she’s a “manly girl”. And Mia’s mother telling her? And then telling Nolan she thought he would have told her already? What the fuck? You don’t out someone. You don’t out someone ESPECIALLY if you haven’t talked about it. I certainly didn´t get the feeling that Mia wanted to be outed, to Nolan’s mum or anyone else.

Afterwards, Mia does get angry once or twice about the questions or the borderline offending comments cis people (like Nolan’s mother) keep making. But that isn’t really her. She rants, she yells, but what she says sounds like something out of a textbook – or a Twitter rant – and not like the character the author has made us know as Mia. She has a right to be angry. Hell, smoke was coming out of my ears while reading some of it, but they way she’s shown, it’s just not believable, it doesn´t match with the rest of her.

I can’t tell you how hard I rolled my eyes when Chase (she’s Nolan’s best friend’s girlfriend) asks Nolan whether Mia is transgender. Only she doesn’t ask it like that, but she instead ask if Mia is a “real girl”. And I really would have liked if this concept was challenged more within the text. Mia is a real girl, she would be a real girl even if she hadn’t had hormones or surgery. But instead we get Nolan saying “she’s a girl up here, that’s what matters”, and wondering more than once if he may be gay. Can you miss me with that bullshit?

And shortly after, when Mia gets angry that Chase has tricked her into showing her she’s trans (and I still have no idea how. They went together into the bathroom and when they came out Chase knew and Mia tells her she saw for herself how she’s anatomically perfect, “like a Barbie doll”. What the hell were they doing? Comparing vaginas?) Mia goes into another of her unnatural rants and Chase’s answer is literally “I’m sorry, but I had to know.” Why? Why does this book keep telling us that cis people need to know whether a person is trans or not? Who are we to demand their stories, to throw them out of the closet? They don’t owe us anything. If they don’t want everyone to know, it’s their fucking business.

Then there’s also the way the cis characters keep reassuring Mia how her “way of living” is totally cool. This reinforces the idea that trans people are looking for our approval, that we as cis people need to aprove of them being who they are. Here’s a surprising concept: we don’t have to.

I know that with some books you need to suspend disbelief to enjoy them, and I have done it more than once. But with this book? It was just salt added to the wound and so many things were badly done or didn’t make sense.

First, it was the way Mia said she’d been on blockers and hormones since she was 13 and then she’d had gender reassignment surgery at 17. Which… I find hard to believe, especially taking into account how much money those cost. Plus, what purpose does this serve? Is it so everyone – except Nolan’s mum, of course – can be surprised when they find out? I honestly have no idea.

Then there’s the way she’s outed, with a LGTBQ support group posting their pictures to a website. It makes no sense. No LGTBQ group would do that without the full go ahead of the people they’re posting pictures of. I thought it would have something to do with Laren – who kept trying to push Mia into becoming their image in trans magazines or so – but this was even worse. Honestly? Not only I don’t believe it for a second, but it pissed me off. Not even Laren’s explanation about it having been a mistake made things better. I can’t believe someone simply posted those pictures without an explicit agreement from the people involved. And that Mia kept seeing Laren afterwards? After the way she’d treated her and tried to push her to come out? That seemed all kinds of off to me. I don’t believe Laren would be the only person Mia could talk to in all of Portland.

And then there are Mia’s personality transplants. I talked about her rants and her getting angry before, how those didn’t fit with her character. But here we have her going from having a panic attack at the idea of taking the bus on her own, to facing off a bully after she’s been forcibly outed and then talking back to the principal of Nolan’s school. It doesn’t make sense and it’s like she’s not even the same character.

And speaking of personality transplants, Nolan’s mother also gets one. She’d been so weirded out before by Nolan dating Mia, so against it at times; and then suddenly when Mia is outed she tells him she’s a lovely girl and she likes her for him? Where the fuck did that come from? I think someone abducted her during the night and left a clone in her place, because that ‘s not the woman we’d met before.

And if you thought there weren’t more things I could hate in this book, you thought wrong! I was no longer furious because I’d given up on that after the 50% mark or so, but I really hate how after Mia is forced out of the closet, we only get to see Nolan feeling sorry for himself, and to see the other students giving him the silent treatment. He’s a cis straight guy, but everything is centered around him. To be fair, he does think once or twice about how worse Mia must be feeling, but then we go back to the self pity. And once again we get someone else saying how they’re “alright” with Nolan dating Mia, and we also get the best friend saying how it’s “too awkward for him” and “he needs to talk with his folks”. Really? Once more for the people in the back: we don’t have to approve on transgender people dating anyone, much less existing. God I wanted to hit everyone over the head.

I can’t believe it went as far as in having LGBTQ groups calling Nolan accusing him of hiding and not doing anything for them now the truth has come out. And I can’t believe the conversation he had about it with one of the gay guys from the support group, where he told Nolan about radicalised LGBTQ groups (just imagine me rolling my eyes in the background). Frankly , it made me think that whole part could have been written by a cishet person feeling disappointed because queer people hadn’t liked their “love is love” post. And I know it sounds a bit cruel and I’m probably – hopefully – wrong, but it’s what that conversation said to me.

And when I thought everything that could go bad had already passed, I got to the first conversation between Nolan and Mia after the fact that Mia is transgender came out. And I shouldn’t have been surprised anymore, but what can I say, I’m a hopeful idiot. That conversation was all about Nolan once more; about what he was facing in school, about what people were saying on the internet, and about how he would feel dating Mia. What’s worse, most of that came from Mia herself. Look, I get it, I know people are allowed to be insecure, but this once more feeds into the idea that trans people are so different from cis people that they have to ask their cis partners permission to date them, while listing all the ways they’re different. And I could do with less of that on my romance books.

So to end this freaking long review: this was a bad book, and some of its issues can’t even be blamed on the way it’s written through a cis lens. I don’t recommend it, whether you’re cis or trans, and I would like to get back the hours I spent reading it.

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