Beast by Brie Spangler
Trigger Warning (Highlight below to see)
Transphobia, insensitivity to self-harm, self-harm, mental illness, mild violence
I am a cisgender female, and thus am obviously not qualified or educated enough to speak about the elements revolving around the trans character in this story. I will try to keep my review focused on the narrative because that’s what I feel I can judge appropriately. 🙂 For a trans woman’s perspective on this book, I found Meredith Russo’s review, which I urge you to check out.
While we’re here, I’d just like to state that I have never reviewed a book with a transgender character before. Although I have read a couple of blog posts about how to review books with trans characters as a cis person, I am aware that my knowledge is incomplete. If you find that I said something potentially problematic, please, please, please let me know.
Dylan looks nothing like a fifteen year-old. He’s well over 6 feet tall, his body’s covered with muscle, and as he describes it- he’s hairier than a throw rug. He’s been made fun of his entire life, ever since he hit puberty in the fourth grade. Nicknamed “Sasquatch,” or more commonly, “Beast,” Dylan gets along with his mother well enough, but she can sometimes be overbearing. And more often than not, he wishes his father was alive, or up in the heavens just listening, so he could have someone to relate to. On the worst day of his life when hats and long hair are banned at school, Dylan falls off the roof of his house. Although he insists that he fell while trying to retrieve a football, his mother insists that he go to at least one session of therapy. There, he meets a beautiful girl named Jamie whom he bonds with immediately. Their connection is something special. But when Dylan was wallowing in self-pity and had zoned out during his first therapy session, he missed it when Jamie revealed that she was a trans girl. This shouldn’t change anything, but will it?
Going into this book, I didn’t know what to expect. I had the idea that it would be a cutesy love story, but the fact that it’s a Beauty & the Beast retelling threw me off. And while the cutesy romantic aspect is very much there, Beast is an incredibly layered, complicated tale revolving around characters so human and so flawed that it will leave you breathless from the thrill of it, from the reality of it. And it took me a while to realize just how much I was enjoying the story- perhaps because I was caught up in the retelling aspect of it initially, wondering how it was going to come into play apart from our protagonist’s nickname. But as the story naturally unraveled, as pieces of the puzzle started to simultaneously come together and fall apart, this novel was a delight to read.
The relationships in Beast are so layered and strong- especially, Dylan’s relationship with his mother. There’s so much negativity and tension in their dynamic, (I believe he’s even slapped once in the novel.) but they rely so much on each other that it becomes beautiful in its imperfect nuance. A lot like how our relationships are with parents. We don’t always love them, we’re sometimes sick of them. But ultimately, they’re who we go to. I loved that part of this book. And the symbiotic romance between Dylan and Jamie was also incredible, full of slow-burn build-up and chemistry that was almost tangible.
But my favorite aspect of this story was definitely our main character. His heart’s in the right place- that much becomes apparent from the very start. But Spangler created this incredibly complex, broken teenager who’s trying very hard to be as tough as his exterior suggests he is, but he’s simply not. He’s a fifteen year old boy with many, many insecurities- particularly with how he looks (I would actually argue that he has body dysphoria, even though that’s not on-the-page mentioned, although the Meredith Russo review linked above makes a good case for gender dysphoria). He looks like a man, but his inner monologues remind us that he’s still a child who has much to learn. He has a best friend, JP, who’s kind of an asshole, but Dylan sticks with him because JP is the good-looking, popular kid that offers Dylan the protection from straight-up bullying. Dylan misses his father, and is constantly looking for signs from above to guide him to the right path. And he tries to hide his pain and sorrow behind sarcastic quips- but you can only hide for so long.
Dylan’s development throughout the narrative is- at the risk of sounding ineloquent- such goals. If I could write a character that deeply flawed and transform him into such a lovable, such an empathetic individual, I will have succeeded as a writer, in my eyes. You know those characters where you know they have flaws, but the flaws are still endearing? Not with Dylan. He’s actually an asshole in the beginning of the book- to the point of being characterized as an anti-hero even. When he goes to therapy for self-harm, he makes condescending and insensitive remarks towards the other people in his group, and when he finds out that Jamie is a trans girl, he lashes out. Not at her, but in a general sense. Spangler doesn’t sugarcoat this at all. Although it’s discomforting and almost disturbing to read, he asks questions that I’d imagine every teenage boy would ask. And from that insensitive, clueless teenage boy, he grows and grows to become a beautiful, wonderful young man.
So, it’s obvious here that I really enjoyed this book. Which is not to say that it was perfect. Primarily, my problem was with Jamie’s character. I feel that all the other characters were so flawed and complicated that she stuck out as this almost-perfect girl, which inhibited me from being as invested in her character as I was in Dylan’s. Moroever, I felt that there were a couple of loose ends that weren’t resolved, particularly with regards to Dylan and JP’s relationship. I also thought that mental illness plays such a prominent role in this novel, particularly with Dylan (can’t say much for the risk of spoilers) that I definitely wish it had been explored more. And finally, Dylan looking for a sign from his father was a little overdone, but apart from these issues, this was a solid, solid read that I would highly recommend.
Please, please, please give heed to the trigger warnings above. This book is so unabashedly honest, and the characters say some cruel things, so please be aware of this.