If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
Disclaimer: this book’s main character is a trans girl, and I am a cisgender person. I will refrain from speaking about trans representation in the book because I do not think I am qualified to talk about it.
If I Was Your Girl follows the story of Amanda, a trans girl who recently moved to Lambertsville, Tennessee to live with her father. Her life back home was difficult; despite having a loving mother, she was bullied relentlessly and was even assaulted- so much so that she attempted suicide. Now, she’s far away and she’s hoping to start over new with a father who’s been absent for most of her life, where nobody knows who she is and where she can keep anything she wants hidden to herself.
Meredith Russo’s debut is strong- one that kept me hooked from start to finish, which had me caring for most of the characters deeply, one that felt real without seeming heavy-handed. Russo does an incredible job of balancing the elements in her narrative; we get to see Amanda’s traumatic past through flashbacks that give just enough away without being overly graphic. We get to see her relationship with her mother in these flashbacks, and see her relationship with her father develop from one that is reserved, wary to one that is warm and protective. We see her school life, her relationship with her friends, and the romance, of course.
But that’s easily achievable- what really makes this book stick out is how deeply nuanced and complex each of these facets is. Her relationship with her parents is never perfect; both of them clearly love her, and she clearly loves them too. But they make mistakes that truly hurt Amanda, and the way Russo made her protagonist maneuver around their complicated relationship was such a delight to read. In the same vein, the conflict between Amanda’s father and Amanda was palpable. He hasn’t been around almost her entire life, and now she’s coming to depend on him as her sole caretaker. The push-and-pull between them was deeply nuanced, and I really enjoyed seeing both of them grow.
I also thought Amanda’s relationship with her new female friends was beautifully handled. She clearly has issues with religion; she struggles with accepting a faith that has hurt her in the past, that people have used to alienate her. Yet in this new town, most of her friends, including her boyfriend’s family, are super religious. Concerned that they’ll shun her if they find out that she’s trans, she keeps part of her identity hidden. To see her try to figure out who she can and cannot trust is difficult; you empathize and feel for Amanda so much throughout the book, but ultimately, this is a book of hope. It’s a book of silver linings where yes, bad things happen, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel and life is worth holding onto that light.
Having said all that, I did have issues, which were all technical issues. Firstly, considering everything this novel dealt with – homophobia, transphobia, parental issues, friendship issues, romantic subplots, religious subplots – I thought it was too short. While I’m so glad that this was a well-rounded contemporary, there was room for more. Each aspect of Amanda’s life could be pushed more, particularly her relationship with Grant. I felt that it was a little insta-lovey; they meet, she likes him, he likes her, they fall in love. I wanted to see more casual interactions with them, where there relationship builds and we see the chemistry between them. Right now, I didn’t feel invested in their romance because it was sort of just handed to us.
Secondly, I felt that Amanda’s trouble with religion was left dangling at the end of the book, which was a bummer because that was the part of the book I related the most to. I wanted to see her reach a conclusion – if not that, some sort of compromise, considering how much it was brought up throughout the narrative. In the end, the theme just flickered out and didn’t reach a full resolution. Which was a problem I had with the end, in general. I loved the plot aspects of the ending; Russo did a brilliant job of balancing the happy with the bittersweet, but it was rushed. I guess I’m saying that I just wanted more meat to the bones of the novel; if it were a hundred and fifty more pages, it could’ve been great. I also felt that despite the complexities of the themes and relationships in the novel, that complexity lacked within the actual characters. I cared about them, sure, but their personalities weren’t fully developed, I thought.
The writing, too, didn’t have any flavor to it. Which is not to say it was bad- it was just okay. There wasn’t anything distinct about Russo’s style, but I’m not going to complain too much about that because this is a debut, and writers keep maturing and developing their narrative style and voice as they write. I know that I’ll be on the lookout for her other books, because I think Russo has the ability to become one of the best contemporary writers of this time. Because despite my complaints, this is an incredibly important book. A book that I will recommend until my dying day because it’s a book that needs to be read by everyone. Everyone. If I could make it required reading for every parent, every teacher, every teenager, every person who interacts with other human beings, I would.
Trigger warnings: homophobia, transphobia, suicide attempt, depression, assault, forced coming out