Flatiron Books, 2016
Amanda Hardy’s parents are divorced. Her senior year in high school, she decides to leave her mother’s place in Atlanta and live with her father in Lambertsville, TN. Their relationship isn’t altogether happy, but she makes it work. As for being a new girl at the local high school, her good looks, intelligence, and charm instantly win her acceptance among girls in her class – and the attention of Grant Everett, a football star who, unlike others on the team, is honest, kind, and thoughtful. Her life seems to be going perfectly. She’s even nominated for Homecoming Queen. But gradually, she finds that her friends, including Grant, have secrets that complicate their relationships.
Chloe, for example, is in the middle of a secret intimacy with Bee, a non-conforming artist with whom Amanda becomes friendly. Bee, on the other hand, is attracted to Amanda, though for a long time she’s too cool to say so because of Amanda’s obvious lack of interest. Grant seems never to have time for Amanda, and she’s hurt until she finds out why: he’s working 40 hours a week to support his mother and two younger sisters because his father has been jailed for producing and dealing meth. Amanda is tolerant and discreet in a way that makes all her friends trust her. But Amanda doesn’t trust herself. She’s afraid that if she tells her own secret, all her friends will hate her. She has some reason to think so. She used to be Andrew, and she left Atlanta because of the terrible abuse and harassment that preceded and succeeded her transition.
Writing a book of this kind is an extremely difficult task. For starters, many readers may automatically find the portrayal of non-straight sexual attraction offensive and simply stop reading. Any attempt to win them over tends to turn the book into a lecture on tolerance in which the characters are merely ideological puppets. Greatly to her credit, Russo makes the teenagers in Lambertsville real people beset with the extremely complicated sexual choices that recent social changes have brought into the open. Amanda’s flashbacks to her life as a boy and the counseling that has led to her quasi-acceptance of herself are far more than case studies; they catch both her shame and her eagerness to change as she grows more and more fond of Garrett. And Garrett, the straight-arrow football player who is confused by Amanda’s history but still willing to listen to her explain it, is a deeply engaging character. This is more than an “issue” book; it’s an excellent portrait of small-town Southern kids who find themselves completely on their own as they struggle to find their way toward tolerance and love in a world that has yet to accept any paradigm of love beyond boy meets girl.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.