Author: Claire Kann
Publication date: January 23, 2018
Genre: young adult contemporary, LGBTQ+
My rating: 1/5 stars (and I considered giving it less than that…)
I. Am. So. Mad. At. This. Book. Seriously, I am one angry ace right now. I was so excited about this book; I had seen it listed so many times in articles with lists of books featuring asexual main characters, and plenty of people had written great reviews of it on Goodreads. I should have realized early on that most of those glowing reviews were not from OwnVoices reviewers; the one highly-ranked review I saw written by someone who is actually ace was quite critical.
It became apparent that the people who praised this book were glad because it taught them about asexuality. The thing is, simply having representation isn’t enough, especially if that representation is bad. And BOY HOWDY was this representation bad. Maybe someone out there can see their feelings reflected in the story told here, but for me–based on my own experience, the experiences of other aces I know, and the little research that actually exists on asexuality–it was inaccurate, full of stereotypes, and generally just not good.
Oh, and the book itself was pretty crap as well, so before I start tackling all the ways in which the book does aces dirty, might as well discuss those problems.
The plot is pretty dull on its own. You have Alice, a college sophomore, who hasn’t declared a major yet, despite her family’s endless pressure to choose political science and then go to law school. She’s also biromantic and asexual, and her girlfriend/roommate just broke up with her because the two are not exactly sexually compatible (one being ace, the other having a very high sex drive). So Alice moves in with her two best friends, Ryan and Feenie (who also happen to be dating each other), and decides to spend her summer working at the library and avoiding responsibility. But then, in walks Takumi: the new library employee, who is so dang gorgeous that Alice is suddenly questioning her sexuality and starts falling head over heels for him. And it all unravels from there.
So let’s start with the characters, because frankly, they all suck. Alice is so dang immature for a 19-year-old. She likes things aesthetically, even if not sexually…so she rates people on a color scale that she calls the “cutie code.” What kind of fifth-grade-level bullshit is that? She is like a real-life Tumblr post, actually using phrases like “squee” in conversation and then has to explain them to people. She also barely uses any social media outside of Tumblr, so…that’s annoying. Of course, to give her personality, she needs interests, so the author made her like…Netflix and food. No, I’m not making this up. She binge-watches shows and sometimes writes analytical essays about the characters (because she’s too sophisticated for fanfic or something), and her other major interest is that she loves eating. Usually eating junk food. It is absolutely bashed over the reader’s head again and again how much Alice likes to eat. We get it, she likes food (and apparently has the metabolism of a Gilmore, because she never gets fat from it). But she doesn’t cook, because like every ~quirky~ girl, she’s sO cLuMsY and manages to injure herself anytime she tries cooking. Ugh.
Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the boy who falls for this Manic Pixie Dream Girl Wannabe is Mr. Bland As White Toast Even Though He Is Japanese. Takumi is a kindergarten teacher (yeah, he’s already graduated, which means he is at least 3-4 years older than Alice). He is a total sweetheart and a health food nut who doesn’t seem to have many interests besides working out and taking care of his nieces. His character has little-to-no growth throughout the story, and his defining characteristic is that he is gorgeous. Which we are also reminded of over and over and over again. And for some reason he is super into Alice right from the beginning, even though her first interactions with him are just her being awkward and tripping over her words and saying nothing. What the heck. There isn’t any real chemistry between them, just him being sweet and her being smitten with his good looks.
Then there is Feenie, aka the world’s worst best friend. Feenie has anger management issues and gets in fights all the time. Sometimes this seems sweet because she will fight fiercely on Alice’s behalf; she once punched a girl who insulted Alice in the locker room back in high school. But she is also really mean and insensitive. I won’t go into detail on what all she does wrong (though a lot of it involves ignoring Alice because she is so caught up in dating Ryan), and she never apologizes for any of it. Somehow, by the end of the book, it’s all Alice’s fault?? And Feenie doesn’t apologize for any of it, despite being a total dick to Alice for so long?? It pissed me off. AND she tries to pressure Alice into having sex with Takumi, even though Alice says she doesn’t want to multiple times, because Feenie is curious and lives vicariously through Alice’s dating life, because she has been dating Ryan basically since the dawn of time.
The other characters are barely mentioned at all, tbh. Ryan is super nice and a great friend but we barely see him. We hear once in a while about other people Alice sort of knows, like her boss at the library, but her only real social life is hanging out with Feenie and Ryan, and then Takumi. Her family is super one-dimensional: a nice dad and older brother, a mom and older sister who put tons of pressure on her, and that’s it.
Then, these lukewarm characters are thrown into a meandering plot that is basically just Alice being full of angst over whether having a crush on Takumi invalidates her asexuality. Never mind that she frequents Tumblr and knows there are different types of attraction–she still doubts whether any of her feelings are valid! And oh, woe is me, I can’t pick a major! Like, yeah, that’s a legit problem tons of people deal with, but it isn’t enough to form the backbone of a story, or even a compelling side plot. It’s just kind of…there. And, spoiler alert, by the end, all Alice has decided is to switch her major to something her parents don’t approve of, and with the help of a therapist, she decides she has been an absolute asshole to everyone and apologizes. That’s it.
The writing isn’t good either. Mostly a very juvenile tone (see previous commentary on how childish Alice is), but it is in third-person? So it feels like we are basically hearing Alice’s thoughts, and the narration sounds more like Alice’s than that of a removed narrator. Just put it in first person and be done with it, dammit.
Finally, just a weird thing that rubbed me the wrong way: Alice is a black, queer woman. In other words, she is a triple minority, and the intersectionality of her identities makes for an especially complicated set of expectations and experiences in the world. And yet, the author only touched on this in roughly two random sentences in the middle of the book, then never mentioned it again. She talked about being a black woman (like people trying to touch her hair and the problem with that, or like the expectation that black women won’t be as successful on dating apps), which was awesome, but never really wove the queer part into any of it. This wouldn’t be that big of a deal, except that the whole focus of this book is Alice’s sexuality (and romantic orientation), and it doesn’t go into the extra layers of complexity that entails for her; it treats it like her race and gender fall into one category, while her biromantic asexuality is totally something separate.
Now, on to what I find most problematic about this book: the ace rep. This isn’t a long piece, but it is the thing I am angriest about for sure.
First things first: it is established from the beginning that Alice doesn’t really care about sex. Cool, that’s common for aces. Then it mentions that she has had sex before. Also cool, lots of aces have sex, for a variety of reasons. But then it describes her experiences, saying that she would just kind of lie there while it was happening, that she didn’t experience much of anything from it. Now, hold up. Research has indicated that the vast majority of people who are asexual can and do still experience arousal from sexual activity and stimulation. So that’s kind of weird, but whatever, we’ll go with it for a second, because it still ends up weird. See, this experience is directly contradicted later in the book, when Alice describes an orgasm as being something like a nice stretch after running–feels good in the moment, but then she doesn’t really think about it outside of that context. So…she does enjoy it? She just doesn’t react when it’s happening? I’m a bit confused, I guess. Because, again, it is totally possible to not experience sexual attraction but to still enjoy the act of having sex. They’re two totally different things, and yet Alice sounds like she thinks the two must go hand in hand. For someone who frequents Tumblr and seems pretty dang knowledgeable about the ins and outs of asexuality, it’s odd that she can’t make that distinction. Then there’s the fact that she freaks out when she sees Takumi for the first time because it triggers some physical arousal “down there.” Like, she freaks out about this and calls Feenie because she can’t believe it. Again, ace people can (and often do) experience arousal from seeing things that are sexually charged, like porn or naked people. And yet Alice is here, alarmed because she’s never experienced that before (and she mentions watching things like the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, so it’s not like she hasn’t watched things that are arousing before) and thinking, again, that it somehow invalidates her being ace. If someone finds that consistent with their experience, cool, and I’m happy for them. But it isn’t consistent with what is more widely understood about asexuality, which is irksome. Asexuality is not about arousal or physical response. It’s about attraction. Get it right.
AND THEN. THE STEREOTYPES. When Alice first sees Takumi, she absolutely melts into a puddle. She can’t get a sentence out. She can’t stop thinking about how gorgeous he is. It’s like watching a middle schooler having a crush for the first time, and I just…why??? Just because aces don’t experience sexual attraction doesn’t mean we respond to other types of attraction like we’re adolescents. There’s nothing “less sophisticated” about an aesthetic or romantic attraction, and I cannot for the life of me understand why it was deemed necessary to reduce Alice to a puddle in the face of someone who she finds really, really good-looking. Again, maybe some aces have had this experience, and if you have, then I’m glad this book reflects something you’ve felt. But especially since there is so little out there, as far as in popular literature, about asexuality, this is a really problematic stereotype to show, as it reduces aces to some sort of immature not-adults because we don’t think about sex.
And speaking of not thinking about sex…oh my god, we are just bludgeoned over the head about how Alice is asexual. You know how I said her only real personality traits are liking Netflix and food? Yeah, the only other defining trait she has–and probably the most-discussed one–is just the fact that she is ace. She thinks about it constantly. She talks about it constantly. Anytime she sees anyone, she starts thinking, “Do I want to have sex with them?” The answer is always no, but still, she obsesses over it. I promise you, we are not all like that. The book is called Let’s Talk About Love, but from the way Alice thinks, tbh I think Let’s Talk About Sex would have been more accurate. Oh, but wait, Alice barely talks about her asexuality with people she’s actually interested in, which is half of why her girlfriend broke up with her at the start, because the two didn’t discuss their expectations beforehand. AAGGGHHHHH.
Then, as if that weren’t all bad enough, I listened to this one on audiobook, which made it even worse. The narrator was not AWFUL, but I had several big gripes about her:
- She mispronounced words. Specifically, she pronounced “ally” like “alley” (seriously, in a book about the queer community, you’re going to mispronounce the word for someone who supports that community?), pronounced “corset” like “cor-SET” (which, whatever, I guess), and pronounced “Tagalog” like the phrase “tag a log” (which is just culturally insensitive).
- She wasn’t good at integrating people’s speech with descriptors of speaking. Like, if Alice said something, she would say it like, “Blah blah blah.” (Beat) Alice said. With that pause in between, as if the two are separate thoughts. Very jarring.
- Why did she have to make everyone sound so melodramatic?? Especially Alice. The way she articulated things just made it sound like she was trying to over-act everything, so Alice sounded sappy and dumb and generally just not like a real person.
- She did that awkward thing where female narrators just make every male voice kind of scratchy/husky, which is so freaking annoying.
All that is to say, I didn’t like this book at all and would not recommend it for anyone. If you want books with asexual characters handled well, I would recommend The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy or Every Heart a Doorway or even Tarnished Are the Stars (which was so-so as a book but did a great job with one of the main characters being ace). I’ve heard very good things about Tash Hearts Tolstoy and Beyond the Black Door as well, though I can’t vouch for them personally as I haven’t read them yet. This was a fun rant to write, but please, for the love of all that is good in this world, don’t waste your time on this one.