Published by Little Brown on June 10, 2014
Pages: 242 pages
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads
When Alix's charismatic girlfriend, Swanee, dies from sudden cardiac arrest, Alix is overcome with despair. As she searches Swanee's room for mementos of their relationship, she finds Swanee's cell phone, pinging with dozens of texts sent from a mysterious contact, L.T. The most recent text reads: "Please tell me what I did. Please, Swan. Te amo. I love you."Shocked and betrayed, Alix learns that Swanee has been leading a double life--secretly dating a girl named Liana the entire time she's been with Alix. Alix texts Liana from Swanee's phone, pretending to be Swanee in order to gather information before finally meeting face-to-face to break the news.Brought together by Swanee's lies, Alix and Liana become closer than they'd thought possible. But Alix is still hiding the truth from Liana. Alix knows what it feels like to be lied to--but will coming clean to Liana mean losing her, too?
Julie Anne Peters’s latest – and last, it seems – novel, Lies My Girlfriend Told Me really made me think about what I want from LGBTQ YA. (It also made me want to check out Julie Anne Peters’s book Luna, which Wendy has read and reviewed.)
To begin: there are lots of things to like about this novel: it avoids the coming-out narrative and surrounding conflict that is common in LGBTQ YA; the queer protagonist isn’t destined to a life of solitude and unending misery; the prose is good (and there are moments of unexpected humor that really worked for me). I am really pleased about all these things – coming-out stories are important, but LGBTQ teens have other kinds of stories, too, and it’s nice to see those other stories getting some attention. Lies My Girlfriend Told Me is great in that respect; our protagonist Alix’s sexuality – or that of any of the other queer characters in the novel – is never questioned and is integrated seamlessly into the narrative. The real focus of the story is Alix’s relationships. And this is all really wonderful, I think. Julie Anne Peters deserves all the props for writing so many different kinds of stories for LGBTQ youth.
The premise of Lies My Girlfriend Told Me seems potentially heart-breaking on that front: teen Alix’s girlfriend Swanee dies unexpectedly. While Alix is going through her possessions, she discovers that Swanee had another girlfriend on the side. Alix texts the side-piece from Swanee’s cell to figure out what the other girlfriend, Liana, knows and what she meant to Swan. After a few weeks, Alix eventually decides that she needs to tell her about Swanee’s death. Alix and Liana meet and come to terms with their complicated relationships with Swanee and in so doing, instantly fall in love. The secret texting is the major hurdle their relationship faces View Spoiler »(Liana, the other girlfriend, thinks that whomever texted her was obviously playing a cruel practical joke, rather than, you know, grieving in a kind of fucked up way that actually makes sense. I maybe didn’t understand her outrage or why Alix keeps it a secret for so long – Swan’s infidelity is so awful that Alix’s brief impersonation of her seems less important). « Hide Spoiler
And yet, despite the metric ton of drama that this book contains, I was … strangely unmoved? I know, I know! I felt terrible. The book is jam-packed full of emotional drama but I felt strangely distant from all of it. Here’s why:
1. Alix, our narrator, is a teenager. But she reminds me of all of the worst parts of being a teenager – she thinks her parents are constantly out to get her, she’s incredibly immature, and she makes poor decisions at the drop of a hat with little to no concern for other people’s feelings. That is okay. She is still learning how to have feelings. It was, however, incredibly difficult to like her or relate to her or not want to parent the heck out of her. In some ways she seemed more like a caricature of a teenager than a real-living-breathing teenager to me. Have some examples:
On Swanee’s death: “Swanee’s only been dead for three and a half days. She could still come back, right? People can be resuscitated. People’s hearts have stopped before, and doctors were able to restart them. My mother could do it – if she wanted to.”
On her parents and Swanee: “Swanee was like a psychic when it came to reading people, and she said she didn’t like coming to my house because my parents always reeked of hater vibes around her.” (Hater vibes!)
On slut-shaming: “I notice she’s gone from goth to slut. She’s wearing the shortest jean skirt I’ve ever seen over holey fishnets with this skimpy, low-cut shirt that shows every bulge. I always think girls who dress like that are crying out, Notice me!” (One of my pet peeves is slut-shaming. I just can’t.)
She also lies to her parents left and right (and gosh, what has my life become when I am identifying with her parents) – she puts herself in life-threatening situations (driving ~2 hours in a blizzard!) without very good reasons to do so – and is generally kind of irresponsible and oblivious to anything but Swanee.
And I mean, fine, fine. Whatever. I could probably deal with this, BUT.
2. I don’t buy the relationship that develops between Alix and Liana after Swanee’s death. For one, I feel like it happens too quickly – and that neither of them have time to grieve Swanee’s death or process their extremely complicated relationships with her. View Spoiler »So many lies! Liana and Swan are engaged and there is at least one expensive engagement ring floating around. Swan told each of them she was going to a different university after graduation and promised them both they’d get apartments together! She pressured them both to have sex with her! Awful! « Hide Spoiler As you can see, there is a lot to process.
It also seems clear that part of their attraction to each other is about getting revenge on Swanee – a healthy place to begin a relationship from. I wanted to cheer for Alix for moving on, but I didn’t feel like either Alix or Liana are moving on. Their relationship is weirdly, although understandably, focused on their dead girlfriend, and View Spoiler »their bond seems to be about proving to the other how different they are from Swan, e.g., they post FB pictures together! plan to move in together when they go to college! « Hide Spoiler
For example, Alix thinks, “We [Liana and Alix] shouldn’t be in contact. Obviously, Swanee didn’t want us to know about each other, and I think she’d be freaked out to find we’d met. Score one for us.” And also: “Swanee would be irate if I got together with her. She’d hate both of us. I know I shouldn’t care, but I do. I have to let Liana go, allow her to move forward so I can.”
Yes, very sensible! But does this happen? No. After some canoodling – and a quick dismissal of the idea that this is for revenge (“if it is, I don’t care”) – Alix “sends a request to Liana asking her to confirm that she and I are in a relationship. A second later, a response comes in. I give a little squeal of joy. She accepted.”
My eyes were rolling so hard at this point. I really wanted them to spend some more time thinking about whether this relationship actually constitutes moving on. And, despite the first-person narrative, there isn’t really a lot of explanation for why Alix cares for Liana, which is weird, because it is in many ways what the book is actually about – not Swanee.
3. A final thing that I really, really cared about: the portrayal of what good and bad parenting look like in this book.
Swan’s behavior – her infidelity, her cruelty to her girlfriends and her sister, her self-centeredness, and her possessiveness – are all seemingly connected to her family life.
Swanee’s family is described in the book as hippies who basically have a love-in 24/7. They are “free spirits, in an ultracool way.” They are the most permissive parents in the world. Not only are they hippies who let their daughter smoke pot, they have an open relationship, hold a funeral for Swan where they play “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” take a family vacation to Hawaii immediately following Swan’s death, don’t give their children a curfew, encourage Swan to date around (and to lie about it), and ignore their children’s need for professional help. They are a compilation of every stereotype of liberal parenting, ever, and this felt a bit to me like a straw man argument. It makes Swan’s parents bad and Alix’s parents good without actually having to make them very sophisticated or emotionally real.
I really disliked this? It seems like it’s implied that her home-life is what makes Swan a bad girlfriend to Liana and Alix, and having all of these things associated with bad parenting was kind of upsetting to me (hippies can be good parents; parents who have open relationships can be good parents; and to have all of these things clustered together as “awful parenting that destroys children’s lives!” felt weird to me).
Final thoughts: if you’re looking for LGBTQ-friendly YA that tells stories other than coming-out stories, I’d recommend it. I’d also happily recommend it to any teenager – it’s nice that LGBTQ identities aren’t questioned and are affirmed. I think Peters is a good writer and that her books are worth reading. While I felt the book lacked emotional depth, your mileage may vary.
Has any read this or any other of Julie Anne Peters’s books? What’d you think?
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.