Jun 23 2011
Dear Ms. Goode,
I requested your book from NetGalley because it was labeled LGBT and YA. The pickings are slim for that kind of material there and I’ve been on the lookout for a gay teen romance.
Sister Mischief isn’t a romance, but it’s a damned fine YA novel so I wasn’t disappointed. This is going to be a long review, I think, because the book is filled with tiny little pieces of awesome. I could quote from dozens of passages. Where to start?
I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book based on the cover or blurb, both of which struck me as overly busy. The formatting on my Kindle also took some getting used to. Sister Mischief is full of footnotes in the form of tweets and text messages. Although these extras add a lot of humor to the story, they also break up the page in a weird way. One scene at the beginning seemed to have missing parts. Perhaps this was an ARC glitch?
Anyway, the story begins with Esme Rockett, half-Jewish girl rapper, getting tipsy at a party after a Holyhill High football game. It’s told in first person, present tense. When Esme’s best friend Marcy leaves to make out with a wrestler, Esme accepts a ride home from Charlie Knutsen, a nice boy she’s known forever. She decides to lose her virginity to him in a sexuality experiment that goes hilariously awry. They’re interrupted by a policeman, and the evening ends with Esme coming out to her father:
“So it turns out I’m gay, Pops.”
He looks hard at me, not upset, probably just checking if I’m serious. When he doesn’t say anything, I keep talking.
“Definitely a homo. Like, Same-Sex City, population Esme. Just a big, gay lesbian.”
He nods. “Cool with me, kiddo. Eat a sandwich.”
Esme’s mother left when she was five, and although her relationship with her father is ideal she can’t help but feel abandoned. She’s trying to find her identity and floundering. A girl in this position needs her mother and the divide between them cuts deep.
Luckily, Esme has her “sisters” for support. Marcy is the “butchiest straight girl ever,” a drummer in the marching band and fellow hip-hopper. She was also raised by a single father (along with a few older brothers), so she and Esme have a lot in common. They’ve grown up without any female role models to teach them how to be girly.
Rowie, aka Rohini Rudra, is a quiet, intense, beautiful girl from India. She writes the “hooks” for their music. More about her later.
Tess is a smart, pretty blonde who belongs to the religious “in-crowd” at Holyhill High. She has deep beliefs but questions everything, and she sings with soul:
Tess always used to get the Sunday solos at their church because she has this kind of voice that can’t just sink into the curtain of a chorus: this bold, rangy, obscene voice, a voice that stirs something in you…Except last month, Tess was apparently so stirring in her rendition of “Amazing Grace” that it made the church moms uncomfortable, and they complained to the pastor that it was too edgy, by which they really meant too sexy. Tessie was heartbroken. She just sang it how she felt it. It’s not her fault she knows how to let music have its way with her.
Esme, Marcy, Rowie, and Tess are members of “Sister Mischief,” an all-female hip-hop group. They’re the kind of girls I wish I’d known when I was in high school. They talk about white guilt, and discuss the significance of the word “bitch,” and wonder whether it’s appropriate for middle-class suburban kids from Minnesota to listen to hip-hop, let alone make up their own rhymes.
“Even my church friends listen to it,” Tess says. “I mean, only what’s on the radio, but still.”
“Your church friends listen to the Jonas Brothers,” Marcy says. “And dry-hump.”
It might sound like this book is anti-Christian, but it’s not. It’s anti-hate, anti-bullying, and anti-ignorance. The girls call themselves pro-feminist and sex-positive. I really enjoyed their snappy dialogue and the natural way they riff off each other. The conversations are laugh-out-loud funny, but sometimes the characters speak more like grad students than teenagers. Tess uses “contingent” as a noun, for example. I, um, had to look it up.
Despite that minor quibble, the members of Sister Mischief really come alive on the page. These super-smart teens don’t fall into the good-girl stereotype. Although they care about grades and college, they also drink and have sex and screw up (to a certain degree). Three of the four smoke pot on the page. Marcy is promiscuous. And yet, no one goes over to the dark side because of these normal teenaged missteps. I loved the portrayal of nerdy girls as not-so-perfect. They misbehave and the world doesn’t end.
I also appreciated the depiction of strong female friendships. We don’t have enough books like this! Stories about girls who get along together and support each other unconditionally are rare. The relationship between Marcy and Esme is particularly well drawn. In one scene, Marcy uses the word “gay” to mean “lame,” and immediately apologizes to Esme. Later, she makes sure it’s cool:
Stealth-text from Marcy: Dude, sorry about that gay lunchbox comment. Didn’t mean it.
Me to Marcy: Dude, stop hitting on me.
Marcy to me: I wish I knew how to quit you.
When the principal of Holyhill High announces a campus ban on hip-hop music and fashion, the girls unite to form a pro-hip-hop gay/straight alliance called Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos. “4H” gains media attention and Sister Mischief steps into the spotlight. The popular students mock the girls relentlessly and everyone wants to know who’s gay.
Esme is “out” with her friends and her dad, but not at school. Tess has a boyfriend and Marcy plays the field. Rowie is more like Esme—she doesn’t date at all.
SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to discuss the second half of the book here, so everything below can be considered a spoiler.
One night after the girls share a joint (in one of two minor pot-smoking scenes, in case anyone’s counting) Rowie and Esme end up alone together. Rowie admits she’s never been kissed, and says she isn’t really sure if she likes girls or boys. Esme offers to help her decide. They kiss, and laugh, and kiss some more.
Thus begins a clandestine affair that seems ill-fated from the start. Esme sneaks out every night to meet Rowie in her backyard treehouse. She falls hard for her friend—how can she not? Rowie is beautiful and smart and they both love words and rhymes. She’s Esme’s first crush, her first real love.
There are hints all along that Rowie will break Esme’s heart. Rowie wants to keep their hookups a secret, even from Tess and Marcy, and she won’t discuss coming out as girlfriends. There is a desperation to their encounters, as if Rowie thinks that one more kiss will lead to a magic sexuality breakthrough. Her Hindu culture is a huge part of her identity and she’s reluctant to upset her family. Even if she did come out, she wouldn’t know what to come out as. She isn’t sure what she is. Rowie’s fear and confusion are totally understandable, but I had trouble sympathizing with her. I never believed she was gay and I wanted better for Esme.
The late nights with Rowie take a toll on Esme, physically and emotionally. Sneaking around is a lot of work—for Esme, who bikes several miles in the dark both ways. The circles under her eyes don’t escape notice:
Marcy to me: U look like shit. Do u ever get any sleep anymore?
Me back: Dbag, this is just what I look like.
Rowie and Esme are hanging out one evening, having an argument about their lopsided love affair, when Tess stops by the treehouse unannounced. She guesses what they’re up to and leaves, embarrassed. But the damage is done. Rowie breaks things off with Esme in a panic. Worse, rumors are flying around the school about which of the “dykes with mikes” are dating. Someone grills Tess, who has the answer written all over her face.
Esme is dumped and outed in the same horrible twenty-four hour period. Holyhill High buzzes with the news. Notes are passed around accusing Esme of sexual harassment. Rowie won’t look her in the eye. It’s a heart-wrenching experience and I cried several times while reading. The scenes between Esme and her father, who discuss not only Rowie’s rejection, but Esme’s abandonment by her mother, are poignant perfection.
And, of course, there is humor amidst the heartache, as seen in this exchange with Esme’s literature teacher:
Mrs. D waits until everyone leaves, then turns to me with the most genuine look of compassion I’ve seen all day.
“Do you want to talk about anything?” she asks, placing a hand on my shoulder.
“Um.” I try to find something to say. “I’m gay.”
She nods, not reacting. “How are you feeling about it?”
I’m at a loss. Like I live in the zoo? Like a girl in a cerulean sari broke my heart? Like God shat on my face? “Out,” I say, throwing up my hands and turning to leave.
Rowie starts seeing an Indian guy to prove she isn’t gay, and the halls of Holyhill become a torture chamber for Esme. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Some of the kids at Holyhill aren’t jerks, like Charlie Knutsen, who tells his friends to stop acting like ignorant rednecks. The members of 4H plan the ultimate prank on their hip-hop hating principal, and Sister Mischief bands together to rock the house.
Although Rowie and Esme rekindle their friendship, there is no satisfying romantic resolution. The genre lover in me wanted Esme to find that special someone (I was partial to Tess), but the story is more about self-discovery and sister power than romance. I put it down feeling like a better person for having read it. A-
GIVEAWAY DETAILS: Candlewick Press has donated an advanced copy of Sister Mischief! If you’d like to be entered to win, say so in the comments.