You know when you see a book and think, “I’m already on board: stop selling,” and you try to avoid any other details about the book, because only the most vague premise is enough to get you to read it and you want to go in as uninformed as possible? I fully admit that I played myself doing this with The Key to You and Me. I saw the cover and thought, “F/F YA road trip novel. SAY NO MORE.” Here’s the thing, though: this isn’t a road trip novel. It doesn’t claim to be a road trip novel. The cover is referring to a character teaching the other to drive. My expectations were completely unfounded, and it’s not this book’s fault that it didn’t meet them.
I shouldn’t have picked it up, honestly. I read Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit when it came out and didn’t enjoy it, but because I was so much in the minority in that opinion, I decided to give the author another go–mistakenly thinking it had one of my favourite tropes. Here’s what the book is actually about, not just my speculations based on cover design: Piper is an equestrian who wants to compete in the Olympics. After her girlfriend dumps her, she stays with her grandmother for the summer–an ultra-competitive woman who was once a professional equestrian herself. Piper is 18 and doesn’t have a driver’s license because she has a fear of driving, so her grandmother hires local teen Kat to teach Piper to drive, and Piper takes pictures with her to make her ex-girlfriend jealous. Unbeknownst to her, Kat is questioning her sexuality and quickly crushes on Piper. We alternate between their points of view.
I appreciate that Kat is questioning her sexuality and unsure at the start of the novel. She’s not just closeted: she genuinely doesn’t know–although she suspects she’s attracted to girls. Piper, on the other hand, has been out as a lesbian for years. I’m also glad that we have some horse girl representation here, which is sorely needed in sapphic lit.
Because Kat is questioning and unsure of herself, she does have some moments of homophobia. She’s so afraid of being outed that she can overcompensate to try to distance herself. Her best friend (who is a closeted gay guy) and her sister both suspect that she’s gay and voice it often, which just drives her further into the closet. I wish more time was spent on how damaging this can be: everyone has the right to come out on their own timeline, and having people say they already knew robs you of that agency. Piper, on the other hand, is heartbroken that her ex left her–and for a guy. She has some moments of biphobia around this (which is not supported by the text).
One element I really didn’t enjoy, though, was the romantic/sexual relationships between teens (18 year olds in high school) and 20-somethings. Kat and Piper go to a party and Kat is immediately aggressively hit on by a 24 year old woman who also pressures her to drink. Despite this clearly making Kat uncomfortable, no one calls this woman out on it, and it doesn’t seem to be treated as a big deal. (Spoiler:) Kat goes on to lie to another 23 year old, claiming to be her age, and they make out (etc). When Kat finally tells her the truth, she says she’s not interested in being with a high schooler, but she also doesn’t seem upset or hold it against her. (End spoiler) Although she’s 18 and this isn’t illegal, it still is… creepy to me.
Putting aside all those details, though, the biggest reason I didn’t enjoy this one was the writing style. I couldn’t tell you exactly why, but I kept bouncing off of it. The writing felt a little choppy, with a ton of dialogue, and it didn’t flow naturally for me as I was reading. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with it, but for some reason I could not seem to immerse myself in it.
I’m sure that, like her earlier book, this one will have a lot of fans, but it wasn’t a great match for me.