“There are enough people waiting to crap in your cereal without you doing it for them.”
Looking for a fresh start, Amanda Hardy transfers to Lambertville High, going to live with her estranged father for the first time since her parents’ divorce. She plans to keep her head down, blend in, and finish her senior year of high school. Then she wants to move up north for university, and hopefully escape some of the prejudice and fear that drove her out of her school in Atlanta, where everyone knew that Amanda had recently transitioned. But when she meets and falls for Grant, her plans to lie low in Lambertville become a lot more complicated. She wants Grant to accept all of her, including her history, but coming out in Lambertville may be even riskier than it was in Atlanta.
While I have never been to the America South, Russo’s portrayal certainly rings true to the more rural and conservative places I am familiar with. In being herself, Amanda has to contend with how others will receive her, and whether it will impact her safety. In an effort to appease the parents of one of her more religious friends, she finds herself in a church pew on Sunday, contemplating whether or not she can make any time for a god who supposedly hates what she is. The pastor gives a sermon on how outer appearances are unimportant, even as Amanda contemplates how transitioning saved her life.
Although Amanda passes very well physically, and is living stealth in Lambertville, she is still contending with aspects of her identity that feel more traditionally masculine. She likes science fiction, and the book is peppered with nerdy references, but she also worries that these interests could out her, or make someone suspicious. Even though she has been lucky to be able to get all the medical care she needs to transition, she is still trying to deal with the things society has told her she can or should like if she is really a woman. Living stealth also has costs; when her friend Virgina comes to visit, Amanda is scared to introduce her to her new friends, because Virginia does not pass as well as Amanda, and she worries that if they figure out Virginia, they might discover the truth about her as well.
If I Was Your Girl cuts back and forth between past and present. As Amanda settles into her new life in Lambertville, Russo slowly reveals the full extent of the circumstances that drove her there. The flashbacks are largely difficult and painful, while her present involves normal moments with friends, and sweet, romantic scenes with Grant. I was especially struck by the attention to consent, and how Russo seamlessly worked it into each romantic interlude. Grant also has his own secrets, and as he comes to trust Amanda, we get a glimpse of the difficulties he is facing in his life. Their unexpected romance is an escape for them both.
There is a lot of good going on in the heart of this novel, but some of the added value is in the supplementary material. In a page-long dedication, Russo acknowledges trans-rights pioneers, trans kids who feel alone and scared, and those who have lost their lives to the cruelty of an unaccepting world. And in the author’s note at the end of the book, she addresses the complexity and variety of trans experience. Addressing her cis readers, she asks that we not “take Amanda’s story as gospel,” and acknowledges that in many ways, Amanda is a fiction designed to be easily accepted and understood. For her trans readers, she writes “It’s okay if you’re different from Amanda. She isn’t real, and you are.” If I Was Your Girl can only be one story, but Russo makes room for differing experiences.
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