Review: Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian

Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian. Scholastic, 2010. Currently available.

Genre: YA Realistic Fiction

Face Value: Terrible. Just terrible. I cannot take this book anywhere unless I peel off the dust jacket. I even feel the need to conceal it within my own home, because I left it on the table and then a friend who came over saw it and exclaimed, “Brianna, WHAT are you reading?” She then proceeded to wave it in my face and mock me for reading romance/erotica. No matter how carefully I explain that this book is a sophisticated fictional exploration of how adolescents handle their sexuality, nobody will listen to me because it has that cover. It’s not that I’m opposed to teen characters being overtly sexual, it’s just a matter of being able to read a book in public without having everyone raise their eyebrows. It would be worse if I were still a teenager. If I brought home that book from my library my mom would have asked questions, for sure.

Does it break the slate? Vivian has written a nuanced story about teen sexuality and rigid gender expectations limiting adolescent girls’ experiences. This book is Slatebreaking much in the same way that The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is Slatebreaking – a prep school girl realizes that she’s fed up with the limited options for being a “good girl” and does something about it. Where Frankie takes subversive action, Natalie’s choices in Not That Kind of Girl are more personal, and the change is not school-wide but rather an individual revelation. Natalie sets a powerful, and wonderful, example of personal change that will resonate with teen girls struggling with similar sets of rigid gender expectations.

Who would we give it to? Anyone who attends a high school that is uptight about adolescent sexuality. So that’s probably everyone who attends high school.

Review: Natalie Sterling is a good girl. She has worked her butt off for four years to have impeccable grades, be the president of student council, and earn a spot as the darling of all of the teachers and administrators. Natalie did all of this without any distraction from boys, because she knew that romantic entanglement would get in her way. She has no faith in high school boys and would much rather focus on finishing her senior year as the best of the best at Ross Academy.

Natalie made the choice to abstain from boys during her freshman year, when her best friend Autumn had a traumatic experience. Autumn’s boyfriend kept pressuring her to go further and further physically, and when Autumn refused to go all the way, he spread a nasty rumor about her around school. She earned the terrible nickname “Fish Sticks,” which has unfortunately persisted until senior year. After that experience, Autumn and Natalie stuck together as the quiet, academically successful good girls. No parties, no shenanigans, and definitely no boys. Now that it’s senior year, Autumn is beginning to tire of the tireless task of living up to the expectations for “good girls.” And Natalie is so uptight that she won’t permit herself to let loose even a little bit. It’s worked for her for four years, but she’s beginning to crack.

Meanwhile, freshman girl Spencer starts at Ross Academy and shakes things up. Spencer is a confident young woman who is not only academically successful but is a huge hit with the male population. She also happens to have a prior relationship with Natalie, who was her babysitter years and years ago. Spencer is a skilled dancer and is comfortable in her body – and she knows how to use her body to get what she wants from the opposite sex. In an attempt to boost school spirit, Spencer forms a flash-mob style group called the “Rosstitutes” and leads a booty-shaking, sexy dance in the hallway. Although Spencer is not ashamed of her public display of sexuality, Natalie is mortified on her behalf, and the school administration comes down hard on the “Rosstitutes.”

In Not That Kind of Girl, Vivian has given us a cast of female characters with vastly different approaches to sexuality, gender identity, and femininity. Each one offers readers the opportunity to really ponder what it means to be a girl and what our society, and our school system, expects from young women. The story is told from Natalie’s perspective – which is fascinating because at the beginning of the book she is the “perfect good girl,” the type of young woman that our culture and media tell us is the most destined for success. The problem with Natalie as a character is that she is not really a nice person. She engages in such strident man-hating (and some girl-hating, too) throughout much of the book that it becomes difficult to like her as a character. Natalie is so wound up in her own academic success that she denies herself any fun or pleasure (material or sexual).

Then she gets involved with Connor Hughes, a popular football player and exactly the kind of boy that Natalie has disdained for four years. She is so overwhelmed with confusion about her physical chemistry with Connor and her longing for an emotional connection that she lets this new relationship upend her life. Natalie doesn’t know how to balance a romantic relationship with her academic ambition, because for her entire life she has subscribed to the ideal that powerful, successful women don’t let men get in their way. Natalie’s struggle with finding balance was especially hard for me to read because I too experienced those conflicting messages in high school – and well into adulthood.

Another “kind of girl” in this story is Spencer, who uses sexuality to get what she wants (and sometimes to get revenge). It works for her most times, but Spencer is young enough that she sometimes struggles with boundaries. A topless photo of Spencer circulates throughout the student body and she is suspended for taking the photo on school grounds. Although Spencer may not have a full grasp yet on what it means to be in control of your sexuality and to use it for personal pleasure and not manipulation, she is certainly an intriguing character – and serves as a foil to Natalie.

Then we have Ms. Bee. Ms. Bee is one of those characters who you want to love, but as the story goes on you see just how flawed she is. Ms. Bee is Natalie’s mentor and idol. She is a polished, professional woman who encourages Natalie to pursue her feminist interests. She’s the kind of teacher I probably would have loved in high school. However, Ms. Bee sees no room for sexuality in her ideal of young womanhood. When Natalie shows interest in a boy, Ms. Bee is disappointed rather than supportive. She is upset that Natalie wants to engage in totally normal teen girl behavior, because she thought that Natalie wasn’t “that kind of girl.” This does nothing to help Natalie, who is caught between pleasing her mentor and fulfilling her own personal needs. Ms. Bee is a reminder for readers that those of us who self-identify as feminists should back off from the slut-shaming and body-snarking, because those are negative practices that do nothing to promote gender equality.

There are no neatly gift-wrapped answers in this book, and I’m grateful for that. I wasn’t looking for Vivian to give me the solution to the challenge of navigating adolescent female sexuality. Instead, Vivian presents a complex and rich fictional setting within which girls and women have to evaluate their own attitudes about sexuality and gender. If only we had more room for those kinds of discussions in the real world. Maybe, if we can get this book into the hands of more young readers, we can.

Reviewed from copy purchased at Bookman’s.

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