In 1993 suburban New Jersey, a teen processes a peer’s death and a parent’s near death while deciphering her own identity.
Fifteen-year-old Eleanor wasn’t close to classmate James before he killed himself: James had called her homophobic slurs, pushed her down, and spit on her. When a teacher assigns epistolary journals, Eleanor directs hers to James because her own mother recently attempted suicide. But Eleanor’s immediately sympathetic tone toward her late bully—even wanting to make him a mixtape!—is baffling. When she acquires James’ journal and savors it, it seems a textually convenient way to slowly dole out James’ backstory to readers. Her warmth fits only later, after she discovers James had a secret of his own. On the plus side, the page-turning prose offers a sparkling new friend, a first kiss, and a worth-her-weight-in-gold trans mentor. The text is graceful and nuanced as Eleanor comes out as a lesbian and then keeps wondering who she is because she senses another layer. Some readers will be frustrated that despite a name change to Eler, Eler never articulates that other layer. A trans and/or nonbinary identity for Eler feels both definite and unclaimed, the arc achingly unfinished. Eler is white and Jewish. In a novel where most characters are white—though Eler’s love interest is coded as black—it is unfortunate that when ethnic diversity appears, it is often in a negative context.
Flawed but with great beauty. (Fiction. 15-18)