Joint Review with Rie: Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole

Rie of Friend of Dorothy Wilde was kind enough to read Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole with me, and then we discussed it together. I tried to mark the spoilers (ones just marked “spoilers” are just for Down to the Bone, and spoilers for other books are indicated) so that you have to highlight to read them. I’m sorry if you read the unedited version; it posted too quickly!

Danika: Hmm, I guess I’ll just throw out some general impressions and we can expand from there. Well, I was stunned by how fast-moving it is. The first chapter could stretch the whole novel for most of the lesbian teen books I’ve been reading. I’m not entirely sure whether that was a positive or negative for me. Not only do a lot of things happen in the book (which I like), but they all happen very quickly. There’s not really any room to absorb what’s happening. Of course, if she had spaced out the action, it would be a very, very long book.

I loved the culture in Down To the Bone (what’s with the title, anyway?). I’m so used to reading the same sort of story over and over (middle-class white girl come out), so I really appreciated getting this glimpse into Cuban culture in Miami (is that right, Miami?). The Spanish phrases thrown in flow perfectly, and I didn’t feel the need to consult the glossary at the back (actually, I didn’t realize it had one until I finished it).

It was also interesting to see the family dynamic. I spent the book hating her mother so much that I couldn’t understand why she would want to be around her. It’s also unusual that we have a story where the protagonist is thrown out of the house (which is something that happens way too often in real life, but is rarely represented in our novels), but she’s not actually homeless. She has these competing forces of a completely intolerant mother and classmates, but fantastic friends who are willing to take her in and take care of her, not to mention the brother that adores her.

I was on the fence about the representations of trans* people in Down To the Bone. I appreciated that there was some mention, but at times it seemed disrespectful. I wish I could remember specific instances now, but it really was a whirlwind.

This is definitely completely different from Annie On My Mind or Hello, Groin, and I’m really happy to see that diversity. I think its strength and weakness is that it does seem more true to real life. There’s so much going on, and a whole fleet of characters being introduced and leaving at any given point, which can be hard to follow and overwhelming, but it’s also more honest and relatable, maybe even more interesting.

Rie:Isn’t it just? I can’t believe how fast it moved, for how long it was, but I also didn’t want it to end. Some plot threads (whatever happened to El Gringo?)  did seem to wander off into the blue yonder, but life’s like that; sometimes your friend has a new boy for the blink of an eye. What struck me about the novel as a whole is that it’s very, for lack of a better word, teenager-y. Sure, they are excellent novels that have an authentic teen voice, this book really immersed me in the worldview of an actual teenager. Their days fly by, they love things passionately, they describe themselves by what they like. It’s a very endearing quality, though I do agree that sometimes I would have liked to slow down and enjoy the scenery a bit.

In the very last paragraph, Laura says that she feels loved down to the bone. 😀 The original title was Act Natural after the scene where Tazer is talking about his friend’s screenplay. Mom discovers her daughter in bed with another girl, and one of them yells “Act natural! Act natural!” It’s a good title, but too subtle for teen readers, I think.

Doles got some criticism for the book, that the emotions ran too high and the story was too dramatic. What did you think? I can speak from personal experience, raised Italian-Roman-Catholic, that no, that’s not an exaggeration, not at all. My family is a little bit more open-minded:  they want me to ” Mother of God, Mary most holy, please marry a nice Italian girl, no more  mamadell’ puttannas [skanky bitches].”

Speaking of, wasn’t it interesting to read about a queer teen with such a strong support network? I read another coming-out book whose climax was much like this book’s opening, but she ended up in a home for gay teens that had been kicked out–even the school guidance counselor had a vendetta against her! There was something really comforting in reading about Laura making a new family with people who aren’t blood family. I also think it’s important to have a narrative where friend-family picks up when your blood family can’t be trusted because they stop loving you.

And how awesome was it that Laura [spoilers] stuck up for herself and said she’d continue her relationship with her little bro, no matter what? [/spoilers] They were so cute together and it broke my heart when he talked about how it was terrible that he couldn’t see her or her puppy, and he was being punished even though he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Regarding trans* folk in Down to the Bone, when I got a little cranky about certain words and how they were used, what helped me was thinking of the story through Laura’s eyes instead of immediately thinking OMG MAYRA LAZARA DOLES IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET. 😛 She’s 16 and completely new to the Miami queer scene, of course she doesn’t get that feminizing a genderqueer dude could be really disorienting for him. To his credit, Tazer took it in stride, and having him want to change for her showed his youth; don’t we all have the experience of wanting to be different for someone we really care about?

Also, how hot is Tazer? It’s been a couple years since the book came out, he’s legal now. 😀

Danika: I felt the same. When I picked it up I was like “Wow… that’s a big teen book”, but it really whipped along, and it could have even been longer. Yeah, exactly: it felt very true to real teen experiences, though that can be a little intimidating to rad.

Oooh, okay. That makes sense, I must have just missed it. I think I would have preferred Act Natural, but Down to the Bone works too. I thought that scene was hilarious.

Hmmm, it’s funny, because apparently Beth Goobie got some criticism for her book Hello, Groin (the last joint review I did) for being too cheery, which it really isn’t, since she spends the whole book struggling with her sexuality. I really don’t think you can win. The problem is that idea of the problem of one story. If you’re taking any book to be a representation of all people’s experiences, than it’s never going to live up to that. But if you take it as just one story of many, it makes more sense. I think that it’s an exaggeration for some people, but totally accurate for others, and since we so rarely see those stories (being kicked out when you come out, having a Cuban and Catholic family), I think it’s really important to represent that side of things. Some people are genuinely that emotional, and there’s no reason that their story shouldn’t be told. Besides, I got a definite semi-autobiographical scent off Down to the Bone, so I doubt Dole’s story is far off from her own (she’s also originally from Cuba and moved to Miami).

Yes, I thought that was really interesting. It was a good balance, because we got the story of “What if your parent/s don’t take it well? What if you get kicked out? What if they never come around?” without having it turn to utter despair. And considering how sickeningly often that happens to queer kids, I love that Down to the Bone offered an alternation to “blood” family, showing that there is more than one place to find safety and community. I’m definitely of the belief that “blood” is not nearly as important as how you are treated. I see stories about people who just keep coming back and begging for their intolerant families to accept them, and it makes me sad, because they deserve better. You’re right, it’s a good representation of chosen family, and of how you can find acceptance and community where you aren’t expecting it (Soli’s mom has a similar religious and cultural background as Laura’s mom, but doesn’t think it’s in opposition to accepting Laura).

Aaaww, I know, the little brother part was so hard, because I wanted her to just ditch her mom, but she loved her little brother so much! [spoilers] I’m glad she refused to compromise there and realized her own strength. [/spoilers]

It’s true, it does make more sense when you realize that Laura is unsure of what she’s talking about, but it still was a little flinch-worthy at times. Yes, it totally makes sense that Tazer would be willing to compromise a bit because he likes Laura. He was really laid back about everything, actually, far more than I would be. (You don’t want to be seen with me in public?! No, I’m not going to just put up with that.)

Rie: It’s funny–if you go back over the text with the original title in mind, you can see characters making comments about acting natural or what is natural and what’s good, and why people believe different things.

I’ve just read Hello, Groin myself (and Annie on My Mind is an old friend), so I’ve been thinking about the three protagonists, all lesbian, all around the same age, and how they approached their sexuality. It’s remarkable how much of a difference almost 30 years makes, no? But at the same time, how sad that teens still struggle with the same issues. Laura, for all of her insecurity about her sexuality, seems to be the most self-aware of the three. She has a very solid sense of who she is, and what she wants. Her comments about how Tazer is too sexually and emotionally agressive, and how she wants an equal partnership in bed and out of it, just floored me. It’s a very mature distinction to make in a relationship. Dylan has a healthier, more progressive awareness of queer sexuality itself, but Laura is more mature overall, more than likely from dealing with the death of her father and taking care of her family while her mother worked three jobs.

Speaking of, I saw the death of her father being one of the main reasons why she wanted to go back to her family, that unspoken feeling that her family was broken enough, and she didn’t want to lose what she had left. It does not excuse her mother’s behavior, but I understand why Laura was so desperate to seek her approval, especially since it seemed like she had a pretty decent relationship with her Mami before she found out.

Can we talk about Laura, Liza, and Dylan, and their choice in partners? [spoilers for Hello Groin, Annie On My Mind, and Down to the Bone] All three books end with the protagonist happily paired off, and [/spoilers] the relationships themselves have some striking similarities, but also key differences. Laura, for all her maturity, has a very [spoilers for Down to the Bone and Annie On My Mind] Liza-and-Annie storybook relationship with Gisela [/spoilers], while Dylan [spoilers for Hello, Groin] got together with her best friend, only now they kiss. [/spoilers] To be honest, I never quite saw what Dylan saw in Joc; she’s an old and true friend, but Dylan is such a curious, intelligent girl and Joc is kind of a flake (though I much admire her bravery and championing of the underdog, which happened a few times in Hello, Groin.).

Danika: Ooh, I’d like to re-read it with that in mind. Fascinating.

Oh good! I’m glad we can compare them, then! Hmm, I’m not sure which one I would consider the most mature… Laura does seem very self-aware, but all three of them are pretty introspective. Dylan is more aware of queer sexuality than Liza and Laura, maybe, but I think Laura is the only one to really find any sort of home in the queer community. Yes, Liza [spoilers for Annie On My Mind] has mentors in the teachers [/spoilers], but other than books, the community doesn’t really get any larger than that. Dylan is aware of the queer community, but rejects it, and never even seeks out queer media. She and Liza both seem to come at it from a place of “this is just who I am, it’s a very personal thing”, whereas Laura starts out that way but then becomes more aware of the queer community and seems to begin to reconcile that individual nature of being queer with being part of a queer community. I think that integration, the individual approach, is a perfectly valid thing to do, but I did like that Laura had a better opinion of the community aspect as well.

I hadn’t considered that, but that’s a very good point. That would definitely influence how her and her mother reacted. Her Mami would be trying to cling onto some semblance of a “normal” family and balk at any violation of that, and Laura wouldn’t want to further splinter her family. That makes a lot of sense.

[spoilers] Yes, I think the happily-paired-off ending is still mandatory in queer-positive teen books. We’re still getting over lesbian pulps’ endings. [/spoilers] I also was sort of puzzled by Dylan’s adoration of Joc. She has her moments, but she could also be pretty harsh. I think I just decided that the Joc featured in most of the book was different from the Joc that Dylan had started liking, because Joc was so deeply closeted (it really can eat away at you), and Dylan could still see the real Joc through that. [spoilers for all three] It’s funny, I think in all of the endings, you’re not really sure if it will work out. I mean, Joc seems pretty unstable, Annie and Liza went through this big traumatic experience and stopped speaking to each other for a while, and Laura just has this mysterious attraction to Giselle. We’re told characteristics about Giselle that seem like they would fit with Laura, but we don’t really get a chance to see them acted. It makes sense to end them that way, though, because most of us don’t end up with our high school sweethearts, but it is interesting. [/spoilers]

Rie: Community is something I thought about rereading this book, and thinking back over the lesbian YA lit that I’ve read. Down to the Bone really shines in showing that a queer community can be a really positive and empowering to experience. A lot of teen books have protagonists that are very “Oh, I’m a lesbian, but I’m just normal,I don’t need to hang out with other queer folk.” I can see how this is important to teenagers, who want to be just NORMAL, but I think that it also perpetuates the idea that hetero culture is what’s normal/the default. My outlook vastly improved when I discovered media about woman-loving women, and I think that having friends that are queer and connecting with other queer youth is a healthy and good thing. Laura was skeptical, of course, because of her upbringing, but she did seem to respect (and be a little jealous of) Tazer’s strong community bonds, and how well Soli slipped in as an ally and friend to the gay scene in Miami.

One really cute line was when Laura mentioned that she wished there was a club for lesbians to hang out and talk about books, art, activism and the environment in a really chill setting. I often wish the same thing!

A plot thread that I wish had some resolution was [spoilers] the fate of Marlena. She’s now presumably stuck in a loveless marriage, trying her damndest to be somebody that she’s not to keep her family’s love and acceptance. And she’s so young! You’d think that Paco would have brought up how their marriage was going, seeing how close he was to Marlena’s dad, so it’s odd that she’s never mentioned again after the wedding.

What did you think about Laura  dropping out of school to become a full-time gardener? I very much liked an alternative narrative (that Laura could have a fulfilling job without going to college), but wonder if it could build false hopes for young readers. After all, Laura was lucky in that she was close to Paco because of Marlena, and that she had a gift for landscape design. [/spoilers]

Danika: Yes, Down To the Bone’s positive portrayal of queer community is really one you don’t see much in other teen lesbian books. We’ve heard that line “We’re just like everyone else” so much that I think it can be damaging when we try to form queer communities, but “we’re the same as you” isn’t really true, for a variety of reasons. And you’re right, whether you find queer culture through the internet, books, movies, other media, or real life, it is often one of the first steps in really coming to terms with being queer. It’s hugely important (hence my obsession with lesbian books).

That was adorable. My girlfriend tried starting a lesbian club once… it quickly imploded in lesbian drama, which I wish was always just an inaccurate stereotype.

[spoilers] Yeah, it is odd that Marlena drops off the face of the planet, but I don’t what else could really be done with her character. She refused to talk to Laura anymore, and the rest of her story is implied: she fakes it in a loveless marriage. It is odd that the author decided to keep Laura connected to Marlena’s family, though. It creates this sort of suspense the whole book that never really amounts to anything.

I was surprised that she never went back to school, but Down To the Bone has so many “alternative” stories that I don’t think any of them can really be taken as something the author is pushing; they all just seem to be Laura’s individual life, not an experience that can be generalized. [/spoilers]

Any final thoughts on Down To the Bone? I’m really glad you recommended we read it. Thanks for discussing it with me; this was really interesting!

Rie: I think that’s a good note to end on!

Have you read Down to the Bone? What did you think of it?

One Reply to “Joint Review with Rie: Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole”

  1. Pingback: Danika reviews Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole « The Lesbrary

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