Mallory Lass reviews Everything Grows by Aimee Herman

Everything Grows by Aimee Herman

CW: suicide, homophobia, family trauma, parental character death (remembered) and child abuse

Have you ever picked up a book and the whole time you’re reading, it feels like somehow the universe aligned and you were meant to find it, to soak in the words and glide through the pages? Well this is how Aimee Herman’s Everything Grows was for me. This young adult book is set in the early to mid 90’s and so many of the experiences and references (Audre Lorde! Bikini Kill! Adrienne Rich!) jumped off the page and reminded me I am not alone. While no queer experience is universal, queer people have a lot of shared history, and this book brought that into sharp focus. If you are a fan of found family and queer discovery and mentorship, this might be a book for you.

This book tackles heavy subject matter, but provides its own healing along the way. The main plot jumps off from the suicide of a teen boy named James; Herman explores the issues of identity, survival, and navigating life from the perspective of James’ classmate, Eleanor, which lightens the load a little bit. It is written in epistolary style, composed almost entirely of Eleanor’s letters to James, who also happened to be her school bully. It reads almost like a diary, the most intimate details of Eleanor’s developing mind laid bare and exposed for the reader to relish in.

Eleanor is 14 when we meet her, and the book takes place over her school year. This is a period of immense growth and self discovery, and we are privy to her journey in a way that made her highly relatable for me. She tries to make sense of her mother’s recent suicide attempt, the suicide of James, and typical coming of age experiences like puberty, masturbation, and sex all the while trying to make sense of her own gender and sexual identity. There are no easy answers, but if there is any single message to take away from Eleanor’s story, it’s that our voice matters. Ask questions of ourselves, of others, and listen patiently for honest answers. The answers don’t always come easily or the first time you ask.

It felt like big parts of her coming out experience were my experience and also a good chunk of her exploration of her gender identity were completely foreign to me but still relatable. Getting to read Eleanor’s thoughts as she pours them out almost daily to James made it seem as if we had been friends for years.

Everything Grows has a full cast of supporting characters who all play a role in Eleanor’s journey: her friends Dara and Aggie, Shirley (her mom), her sister and her dad, plus her mom’s lesbian friend Flor. Additionally Ms. Raimondo, her English teacher, and a trans woman she meets named Reigh, both play an important role in her road to self discovery.

The book underscores the importance queer mentors can play in young adult lives and inversely the tragic consequences for queer youth who have no one in their corner, no one to say, “Who you are is okay, is worth loving, is worth being here and taking up space.” I was lucky to have these type of mentors in my life, and I am more appreciative of it now than I’ve ever been.

Through Eleanor’s journey I was also reminded of the importance of queer people as creatives, of the artists and writers who have come before us and have laid the groundwork to help us understand ourselves and the people around us.

Ultimately this book is confirmation that the human condition is real and life is hard. But the best thing about it is Eleanor gives me hope that if we can keep working to uncover our own mysteries and help each other do the same along the way, the world will be a better place.

There is a line in the book, “…I wonder if there were more books and movies about us, would we feel less alone?” And at least for me, Herman answered that question with an affirmative ‘YES!’.

This book filled a place in my heart from my childhood that I didn’t know was missing. I hope you will open it and give it a chance to grow inside you as well.

Mars Reviews “My Mother Says Drums Are For Boys: True Stories for Gender Rebels” by Rae Theodore

In this short autobiographical essay and poetry collection, Rae Theodore offers a frank and panoramic perspective on growing up butch. The titular term “gender rebel” is entirely accurate here as Theodore recalls a childhood and young adulthood where classic femininity chafed. All the outer accoutrements of fashion and stature were as complicated to her as the mental tightrope that so many butches walk, between a female-bodied experience and an intimate mental relationship with the masculine self. In the author’s case, performativity, or ‘walking the walk’ of socially-acceptable womanhood, was never enough, and was made extra complicated by the realization of her own homosexuality after having already married and built a life with a man.

Reading through this piece was a real pleasure. I haven’t read much LGBTQ+ work that centers the butch experience, and I can’t quite express how powerful and charming it felt to read simple anecdotes packing a reflective punch on the heavy burden that gender can be. I don’t know that I expected to identify so much with it either, but I suppose that’s the power of sharing diverse stories. The weaponization of clothing, jealously observing the freedom of boys, childish yearning for a father’s approval of a son, the immediate and intangible connection that a queer gender rebel feels when encountering one’s elders: Theodore recounts this and more in an honest and straightforward manner that keeps readers glued to the page.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever been made to feel ashamed for their tomboyishness, or gender expression in general; to anyone who has ever needed to contain multitudes of softness and hardness towards the world and towards themselves; or to anyone who in any number of ways has ever felt like a late bloomer.

Disclaimer that there are mentions of violence in certain stories, and a lot of working through deep shame and internalized homophobia, especially earlier on. I will also add that while this is a serious (and sometimes very fun) recounting, the book summits with comforting self-actualization, and this butch seems to have attained a really lovely life. In a book like this, the nice thing about a happy ending is that it makes you believe you can have one too.

Elinor reviews Searching for Celia by Elizabeth Ridley

SearchingCelia

Searching for Celia by Elizabeth Ridley is a fast-paced mystery about identity. It starts with our American narrator, Dayle, on a plane to visit London and deliver a keynote speech at a writing conference, and more importantly, to visit her lifelong friend and one-time girlfriend, Celia. Dayle and Celia meet as young teenagers when Celia’s father was working in the U.S., and Dayle and Celia have been friends ever since. Six years before the novel begins, Celia and Dayle completed a writing graduate program together in England. During that time, they were briefly a couple, sharing dreams of writing serious, important fiction.

Celia and Dayle both succeeded in getting some of their serious, important fiction published shortly after graduating. Both women ended up experiencing tremendous commercial failure with their fiction in the years that followed, and were devastated by this failure. Dayle handled this by adopting a pen name, dying her hair, and writing a bestselling series of over-the-top spy novels and buying a Chicago condo with her profits. In just half a dozen years, Dayle’s gone from idealistic would-be writer to wealthy blockbuster novelist who worries about being a sell-out. Celia, on the other hand, started off with some success in her chosen field, followed by a flop that was also ripped apart by critics, and quit. Instead of writing, Celia’s been single-handedly running a nonprofit out of her London apartment, serving refugees and asylees, especially women and girls trafficked in sex trade. Not surprisingly, they’ve drifted apart. When Celia invited Dayle to stay with her during Dayle’s visit for the conference, Dayle hoped to revitalize their lagging friendship. A heartbreaking personal loss Dayle has recently suffered only fuels her longing for someone she knows so well.

Unfortunately, Celia doesn’t greet Dayle at the airport. Dayle goes to Celia’s address and she’s not there either, but she lets herself in. Soon she learns that Cecelia’s car has been found on a bridge and it appears Celia has died by suicide mere hours before Dayle arrived. This shock launches Dayle into an investigation of her friend’s life. While staying at Celia’s apartment and meeting with Celia’s recently dumped girlfriend, Edwina, Dayle discovers sides to Celia she never expected, casting doubt about everything she thought she knew from twenty years of friendship. Dayle suspects that the police account of Celia’s disappearance is not the whole truth, and her search for answers raises even more questions. Did Celia die or fake her death? If she’s dead, was it suicide or murder? Was Celia’s nonprofit broke, mixed up with organized crime, or both? Was Celia keeping the nonprofit afloat with her own money or using it as a personal piggy bank? Who was the real Celia? Dayle keeps digging, even when it begins to put her own life in danger.

The plot moves along at a quick and engaging clip, with menacing themes of terrorist threat and mistaken identity woven throughout. I read the whole thing over a weekend, eager to find out what would happen. This novel is suspenseful without being gruesome or gratuitous, and deftly avoids gore and sexual violence. Dayle and Celia’s friendship feels real, complicated, and fluid the way long-term queer friendship often is.

Searching for Celia isn’t perfect. Dayle’s launch into literary success seems too quick and easy. Edwina is underutilized, and too many characters–such as Celia’s therapist–offer up crucial information that should be private, seeming just because Dayle asked. Some of the most interesting questions are never answered, even when the rest of the story comes to a fairly satisfying end. For example, we never learn why Celia chose to work with refugees, asylees, and trafficked women when she faced difficulty with fiction, or why she revised an unpublished novel and asked someone to keep it safe when it seems she’s given up on writing. Celia’s nonprofit and the characters it served seemed two-dimensional, holding up the plot well enough but not doing much else. In the final chapters, Dayle jumps on theory after theory with little evidence, trusting people with secrets and then regretting it as soon as she hears a different theory. Not surprisingly, this leaves Dayle, and others, vulnerable to manipulation and harm. I like my heroines a little more savvy, especially because at that point Dayle is deep in her investigation and knows some of the dangers she may be facing.

Limitations aside, Searching for Celia sucks you in. It’s a great read for mystery fans. It digs into deeper questions about what it means to know someone while keeping you guessing about the story. If you’re intrigued by the premise, give it a try.

4 out of 5 stars.