The Uncanny Valley

Elizabeth Bridges - Writer, Professor, Reviewer

Her Name in the Sky by Kelly Quindlen – WLW YA Book Review

Since this is the first in a series of posts, I’ll give a little background. Most of my recent pieces have been about TV’s The 100, specifically with regard to the unfortunate turn it took in Season 3 with the death of favorite lesbian character Lexa, and the conversation that has started about the problematic depiction of WLWs (women who love women) on TV in general.

Having been trained in a near-Pavlovian manner to expect heartbreak any time I see a woman show any romantic interest in another woman onscreen, I decided to seek elsewhere for better representation. One of my first stops was Amazon’s kindle store. I mean, if you can find dinosaur-themed erotica and “uniporn*” for kindle, why can’t you also find a quaint little lesbian teen love story or two? Well, it turns out you can. I had to look around for a bit and weed through the smut – because the kindle store delivers that in spades to be sure – but indeed there are several good stories out there for young women who find themselves in love with the girl next door.

My criteria for any of the books I review in here: it has to be well written, no WLWs get killed, it has to have a happy or at least positive ending, and it can’t be smut – not that I’m inherently anti-smut, but that’s available widely and doesn’t need my promotion to succeed. Right now I’m enjoying the chance to survey what’s out there for YA fiction because when I was at the age when I would’ve most benefited from these books, they just flatout didn’t exist. I’m so glad for our young women now and look forward to the day when these stories will be readily available without even having to look very hard.

So, welcome to the first in an ongoing series on WLW YA fiction reviews.

Quindlen, Kelly. Her Name in the Sky. Amazon Digital Services, 2014. Paperback $12.99. Kindle Edition $5.82.

HerNameI chose this book because it’s set in the South, specifically Louisiana, and I grew up in the southern US and live there still. So I felt it might prove relatable to me beyond just the WLW subject matter, and I was correct about that. Living in the South, I’ll take the liberty of saying that a few negative southern stereotypes sometimes prove true: a) there’s probably more open homophobia than in some other parts of the country, and b) conservative Christianity plays a role in almost everyone’s life. It’s just a fact. And sure enough, this story is set in a small Louisiana town. Most of the characters are students or teachers or parents of kids at a co-ed Catholic high school.

The premise of this story is fairly familiar from the outset: our POV character Hannah comes to realize that she’s in love with her best friend Baker. The conflict here is, of course, that Hannah must come to terms with her own feelings in the context of a strict religious education and upbringing. And does Baker even love her that way, and if so, can she also come to terms to what that might mean in their traditional community? Add to that the typical high school characters we normally encounter in YA literature – the mean girl, the jock, the sweet, sincere well-meaning boy who wants to date our main character, and various teachers, parents, and authority figures. We also get the typical settings of spring break in Florida, prom, school dances, football games, and house parties, and you might assume this story is predictable, but I did not find it to be the case.

Indeed, despite this potentially familiar territory, Quindlen takes the typical high school motifs and renders them fresh through the eyes of protagonist Hannah. At some point as young people we all feel as if we’re the only ones ever to feel whatever it is we feel, as if we’re the first people in the world to ever experience a particular emotion. Kids are not particularly great at sharing their innermost thoughts with each other for fear of being ridiculed, so it’s no wonder we all end up feeling alone sometimes as teens, even under the best of circumstances. Add queerness to the mix, and it can be far more isolating because we don’t see many people like ourselves and may get homophobic messages from family, friends, or media. Quindlen does a remarkably good job of conveying this experience through Hannah’s eyes. The added sense of religious guilt that Hannah has to work through was especially poignant to me, homophobic religion having been my main hindrance to dealing with my own sexuality until I was well into college.

Besides the tenuous potential relationship between Hannah and Baker, there are several subplots in this novel, particularly as pertains to Hannah’s group of friends. Although they fit into several high school “types” as mentioned above, they are definitely not cardboard cutout stereotypes. Each friend has his or her own personality, interests, motivations, and ideas, and even speech patterns and catchphrases. The main secondary conflict of the book has to do with the evolution of this tight-knit group when Hannah’s sexuality comes to light. Can they stick together? Will they support Hannah? This isn’t only a romantic love story, it also deals with the nature of friendship and family relationships and whether unconditional love is possible in difficult circumstances.

Ultimately, Hannah must come to her own understanding about the divine in order to come to terms with being a lesbian, and this novel’s greatest strength is the way in which it depicts those two experiences as deeply intertwined. This story is at its most poetic when Hannah feels her own inner nature as a source of power and strength rather than as a weakness. I can say from my own experience of coming out that instead of feeling isolated from the world as I feared I would feel, instead – for lack of a less corny way of putting it – I felt a stronger connection to my life, and frankly, to the universe when I finally embraced my love for women and allowed myself to express it. I never felt a second of guilt after that, and Quindlen really conveys the sense of wonder and exhilaration that accompanies that acceptance. She utilizes nature imagery to do this, and for the most part the use of that device feels authentic and not overbearing or forced.

The journey from frightened and closeted girl to courageous young woman is not  easy for Hannah and takes some turns you won’t expect. There are a couple of sex scenes in the book, but they are not in any way gratuitous or smutty. Indeed, they’re whatever the opposite of that is, dare I say reverent or transcendent even.

One of my only minor quibbles with this book is the fact that drinking plays a pretty central role in all the kids’ social activities, though that is realistic to some degree. The only problem I have is with the fact that drunkenness borders on an overused plot device at times. It felt at certain moments like every chapter involved some set-up for a party. But I was young once, and it did sometimes seem like everyday life was all about marking time between weekends, so I can’t get too bent out of shape by that detail. There are a few tiny editing infelicities here and there, but that is true of most kindle books, since most are not edited by professionals. Being a writer myself, I’m aware that it’s almost impossible to catch every mistake in a book – or blogpost, for that matter – so I’m letting it slide. It wasn’t enough to distract me from the story. The writing was superb overall.

For any young person dealing with the thorny issue of integrating one’s faith with one’s sexuality, I strongly recommend this book. It actually goes into some intricacies of the Bible and theology with a level nuance that I definitely did not expect from a lesbian YA romance. This book is not anti-religious in any sense. The depiction of coming out also felt like something I could relate to in general, beyond just the religious aspect. This novel does not spare gritty details such as swearing and the consequences of sexual choices. The writing and characters are good enough that I actually think any young person, queer or straight, would probably enjoy this book. And because lot of the experiences it conveys are universal, I don’t think there’s a real age limit on who might enjoy this book either. It’s cool for adults to read YA nowadays anyway, so you might as well give it a chance.

 

*Unicorn-themed erotica, usually heterosexual. Or unicorn-sexual. I’m not actually sure how it works. Same with the dinosaur-based material. No idea there either.

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4 Comments

  1. On a not-unrelated topic, I’m sure you’re familiar with the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend on-line movement. Just in case you’re not, it involves many LGBT fans and their supporters petitioning Disney to make Elsa explicitly lesbian in the upcoming sequel, “Frozen 2” (while she was subtextually so in the original). The movement is unlikely to reach its goal, but it might be worth a UV blogpost or two.

    • EB

      May 25, 2016 at 7:08 am

      Thanks for this suggestion. I’ve seen this happening on Twitter. I’m not a huge fan of Disney – nothing against them, it just doesn’t interest me much – so I don’t have a lot of opinions on this topic, but I agree that it’s an interesting set of arguments. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a queer Disney character at some point in the future, just maybe not immediately. I’m all for it, if it happens.

  2. Ooh, thank you for starting this project! I unabashedly love YA, and agree that positive WLW stories and way too few and far between. I’m looking forward to your future recommendations, and I’m going to go check this one out ASAP! 🙂
    – Megan

    • EB

      July 23, 2016 at 2:07 am

      Awesome – thanks for reading. I read 5-6 YA WLW novels this summer so it’s just a matter of sitting down with my notes. More to come.

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