Author: Alyssa Sheinmel
Publication date: February 1, 2020
Genre: young adult, contemporary
My rating: 4/5 stars
What Kind of Girl is one of those books that, regardless of your opinions on its execution, you have to acknowledge is vitally important for its willingness to openly address difficult social phenomena that society likes to sweep under the rug. It is a heavy read, but in a necessary way, not the maudlin sort of sob-story that is an inherent risk of writing about so many serious issues that teens face today.
“Doing something when you’re scared is braver than doing something when you’re not.”
It’s hard to summarize this story, because of some “clever” narrative devices the author tries to use (more on those in a moment). All you need to know is that, when Mike Parker’s girlfriend comes to school with a black eye and says Mike gave it to her, her life–and the lives of her best friend and several others–are about to be changed in a major way. Some believe her, some don’t, but all seem to agree that something happened, and someone has to face consequences.
“Bad love is no better than not being loved at all. I think it might be worse.”
Writing about problems like mental illness, relationship abuse, and eating disorders is not uncharted territory for YA novels. A defining trait of YA is the desire to shine light on teenagers as whole, complex people facing problems of their own–whether those problems are overthrowing a corrupt government (a la The Hunger Games), combatting racism (as in The Hate U Give), or fighting drug addiction (like Crank and other Ellen Hopkins books). In the case of What Kind of Girl, though, Alyssa Sheinmel casts a wide net that encompasses multiple very real, very weighty, very complicated problems, and articulates the often-confusing interplay between various situations, symptoms, and comorbidities. Problems like self-harm and bulimia are not just alluded to but described in painful (though not romanticized) detail, through the constantly over-analyzing eyes of the teenagers who struggle with them. The main characters ruminate over their every choice, about “what kind of girl” their actions will brand them as in the eyes of others–when reduced to the simplistic terms of others’ opinions, how can you possibly hope to feel fully understood?
“I shouldn’t be feeling sorry for him! What kind of woman am I, worrying about what he’s going through? What kind of girlfriend would I be if I didn’t?
And, truly, the character development is handled wonderfully. Here we have teenagers who struggle to find their places amidst pressures to succeed academically, to have the perfect relationship, to look perfect, and to always make the right choices, even when there isn’t truly a “right choice” to be made. They hurt deeply and care deeply in that way that only teenagers are able to, when the problems they face are so narrow and specific and omnipresent and acutely crippling as a result. They second-guess themselves, blame themselves, hurt themselves, while doing all of those to each other was well. They are multifaceted and self-aware, but they also struggle to make the necessary choices for personal growth.
“That’s the kind of person I want to be…I just don’t know if I’m strong enough to do all the things I want.”
For all its success in narration and character development, though, What Kind of Girl does have its fair share of flaws. Its pacing is sometimes difficult to work with, dragging for long sections while characters are lost in their own thoughts. Although these thoughts are crucial to establishing the characters’ internal turmoil, they get unnecessarily prolonged in some places, especially in moments that would otherwise be incredibly tense, causing the narrative to stall when it needs to accelerate.
“What kind of girl doesn’t want to get the guy in trouble? Maybe the kind of girl who stays with a guy for three more months after the first time he hit her.”
My other frustration was with the author’s choice of structure for the first two parts of the book, refusing to name the girls in the story at first and instead referring to them by labels like “the popular girl,” “the girlfriend,” and “the best friend.” She has a reason for doing this, which makes sense in the context of the story, but the author overplays her hand at the start, foreshadowing the “twist” too heavily–I caught on almost right away–and confirming it too early, which weakens its effectiveness as a narrative device.
“I didn’t really see why it was less significant because it happened in high school, when we all had our lives ahead of us. If we were talking about anything else–drugs, drinking, sex–it would have been a bigger deal because we were only in high school, because we had our whole lives ahead of us, because the things that happened now would impact our futures.”
Still, even despite its flaws, this is a significant book for teenagers everywhere–especially teenage girls–as they fight to maintain their sense of self amidst the shifting tides of their social lives and the oft-contradictory elements of their personalities that develop as a result. It is easy to render teenagers as simplistic, self-absorbed thinkers, but in her writing, Sheinmel is keenly attuned to the fierce-yet-fearful flutterings of teenage anxieties, and to the agitation for justice that thrums beneath the surface, no matter how difficult the two may be to reconcile. This book is a testament to the fact that, even as everyone is one-of-a-kind, nobody is ever so simple as to be just one kind.
TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNINGS: abusive relationship, slut-shaming, vivid description of cutting/self-injury, teenage drug use, anxiety, OCD, bulimia
Thank you to Sourcebooks Fire for providing me with an eARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.