Long time geek, fangirl, mother, and reader. I've got a lot to say, you might not like it all, but it will be honest and hopefully helpful.
Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Trigger Warning: This book uses the r-word (ableist slur for people with intellectual disabilities and/or Down syndrome). Details on its use are in the review.
In many ways, Frenemy of the People reminds me a lot of various books and movies I loved as a kid with the notable difference of the leads in this love story are a lesbian and bisexual girl. As a preteen and teen, I longed for a story featuring to girls in love. I wanted something, books or movies, to mirror the kinds of relationships I was having at the time. This book does that so realistically that at times I was laughing with second hand embarrassment.
“I’m not sure what transgender is yet, but I found a website that’s going to explain it to me.”
The story is told in 1st person, the narrative switches between Clarissa and Lexie’s POV. This not only provides insight into the characters, but also into how they misunderstand and misjudge each other. Resulting in some of the most authentic and rarely seen teen voices I’ve ever read.
Clarissa and Lexie are spoiled, entitled, and often not likable at times. They think they know it all, jump to conclusion and make a lot of mistakes, just as we all do when we’re young, and even as adults. While they’re slips ups and stumbles are cringe worthy they are also realistic and true to the kind of teens we rarely see in media. They aren’t quirky, fast talking over-educated avatars for adult nostalgia. They put their are misinformed, inexperienced, and often put their foot in their mouths. These flaws are not trivial or token, but rather are tied to who they are and how they were raised.
“The word man doesn’t mean human,” I said. “We already have the word human, which means human. This is totally sexist.”
Lexie is self righteous, rude, insensitive and disaffected. She embodies the militant, vegan, punk lesbian cliche, complete with straight edge tattoo and blue hair. If that was all we knew of Lexie that’s all she would be, a stereotype. Luckily, we get to know Lexie, and her home life, and see there is real pain and reasons for what she does. Her parents’ emotional neglect plays a huge part in why Lexie acts out and clings to stark views of right and wrong. The story provides insight both through Lexie’s narrative, and Clarissa’s POV into a sensitive and deeply wounded girl, who wants desperately to be seen as good and worthy of love.
I was disheveled, smelly, and full of hate. They should fear me.
Clarissa could also be dismissed as a cliche, though a whole different one. She is the spoiled popular girl, complete with a gaggle of friends and trophies for horseback riding. Add onto this her sudden realization, at the beginning of the story, that she is bisexual and Clarissa could be the poster child for the “faux bi girl” stereotype. However, like Lexie, Clarissa proves to be complex, intelligent and surprisingly mature. Part of this maturity stems from growing up with a sister with Down syndrome, but some of it also comes form having flighty, fiscally somewhat parents. Clarissa is compassionate and determined, strengths that are all to often discouraged in girls her age, but here they give her the foundation she needs to weather some sizable adversity that has nothing to do with her sexual orientation.
“Brains, beauty and pizza.”
Let me take a break to talk about my favorite character in the story, Desi. She is Clarissa’s older sister, and she has Down syndrome. A character like Desi could easily be a token or plot device, Desi is neither. She is a teenage girl with a boyfriend and the same dreams many teenage girls have. Desi is blunt and unapologetic, and doesn’t let her disability or people's ignorance about it stop her from getting whatever she wants. She is very aware of how people treat her differently, and even uses it to her advantage. While I wish there were a few more disabled characters with as much of a presence in the story as she has, she does have several scenes with characters other than her sister and parents where she’s treated as an equal. One of my favorites moments in the book is a scene where she’s playing a game with Lexie and another character, Slobberin’ Rob, where she shows she’s a clever little smartass. Desi is everything I LOVE to see in a female character, and wish I saw more in fiction, it’s even more awesome that she is all this and has Down Syndrome.
Lexie and Clarissa are also refreshing female characters in how they’re allowed to not be perfect, or idealized versions of what adults wish teens were like. They both make mistakes and say the wrong things at the worst possible moments, much like we all do. Despite their imperfections and missteps they grow and learn from each other and their experiences.
A great demonstration of one of these mistakes is linked to the Trigger Warning. Early on in the story, Lexie uses the r-word in reference to Desi, in a comment about how the concept of a Homecoming queen is a joke. Clarissa immediately calls out Lexie and explains that the word is a slur.
It is a important moment for both girls, and their relationship. Lexie is forced to deal with the consequences of what she says, and that she is not as socially conscious and knowledgable as she believed. She also sees Clarissa in a new light, and is forced to reevaluate her view of a girl she’d written off as shallow and ignorant.
Other stories would either not even use this word, or would give this huge misstep to a villainous character. By giving it to Lexie it not only allows her to be flawed, but to also demonstrate her capacity to learn, while providing a similar opportunity to unknowable readers. It shows the error doesn’t make her a bad person. In fact, her ability to apologize and grow shows her heart is in the right place. Clarissa has similar moments of growing awareness. Both girls go through significant character growth that is grounded in realistic situations. Part of becoming an adult is realizing their you’re not always right, and neither are your parents.
Speaking of parents, there is a refreshing abundance of parental figures present and deeply involved in the story. While the girls parents are source of stress and emotional pain, they also are sources of love and support. I loved how the parents felt like real, deeply flawed, people too. They had lives outside of the girls, and very realistic dialogue.
All these layers, and thoughtfully constructed characters come together to weave a profoundly enjoyable and surprising emotional read for me. I was transported back to my own youth, and reflected on my own mistakes and turbulent love life with a forgiving eye. That part strikes me the most.
Women are rarely allowed to forgive themselves for mistakes, even when they are understandable and a natural part of growing up. We are taught, from a very young age, to judge ourselves and other women harshly. I often seen this judgement extend to fiction depiction of women. Where fictional teenage girls are held to unrealistically high standard. They are judged to be shallow, cliche and unimportant simply for not being an idealize version of what adults think teens should be. That is not only unfair, it’s damaging.
Real teen readers should be able to see a wide range of teenagers and teenage experiences. Fantasy and wish fulfillment are great, but not all teen character have to embody ideals that are often unachievable for real teens. We should have a diverse rage of experiences and characters for readers of all ages and all sexual orientations to identify with, especially teenage girls who often are only give a singular, homogenous image of themselves in media.
Showing teens that they can make mistakes, not be perfect, and of course not be straight and still be good people, who find love is profoundly important to the health and well being of LGBTQ teens. Not liking or relating to Clarissa or Lexie shouldn’t be a value judgment on them, just as it shouldn’t be on any young girl. They are not poster girls for lesbian and bisexual teens, they're just two teenage girls in love.
Frenemy of the People is an honest, earnest view of the messy, imperfection of teenage life and young love. It shows how girls are capable, intellect and worthy of love, but most of all it shows how the experience of young love is a universally uplifting, hilarious and even cringe worth at times.