Published by Simon Pulse on March 3rd, 2015
Genres: coming of age, contemporary, young adult
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Etta is tired of dealing with all of the labels and categories that seem so important to everyone else in her small Nebraska hometown.
Everywhere she turns, someone feels she's too fringe for the fringe. Not gay enough for the Dykes, her ex-clique, thanks to a recent relationship with a boy; not tiny and white enough for ballet, her first passion; and not sick enough to look anorexic (partially thanks to recovery). Etta doesn’t fit anywhere— until she meets Bianca, the straight, white, Christian, and seriously sick girl in Etta’s therapy group. Both girls are auditioning for Brentwood, a prestigious New York theater academy that is so not Nebraska. Bianca seems like Etta’s salvation, but how can Etta be saved by a girl who needs saving herself?
The latest powerful, original novel from Hannah Moskowitz is the story about living in and outside communities and stereotypes, and defining your own identity.
This book. This book is pretty much the closest thing I’ve found to the perfect contemporary. It is the contemporary of my dreams. The contemporary we all deserve. I’ve been waiting so long to find a bisexual protagonist, it’s unbelievable. I mean, there have been a few (Love in the Time of Global Warming comes to mind immediately) but none have really addressed what it’s like to be bisexual in a contemporary society full of people on both ends of the sexuality spectrum telling you that you don’t know yourself well enough to make that decision for yourself, or that your sexuality doesn’t actually exist, or you’re greedy, you’re a slut, etc, etc, etc. Not Otherwise Specified shoves its middle finger right in the air and gives a big fuck you to the sexual orientation binary. I mean, this book does a lot of other things too, and it does them almost perfectly, but goddamn I have been waiting for this book and it’s finally here.
Etta, the protagonist, is amazing. She’s been cast out by her friend group who call themselves The Dykes. The Dykes, as you can imagine, are a group of lesbians who attend Etta’s school, and honestly the only real thing they have in common in an attraction to other girls. But as you can imagine, it’s not easy being not-straight (and in Etta’s case, also black) in the middle of whiter and white, straighter than straight Nebraska, so Etta has latched onto them. But they abandon her when she dates a boy. It’s not like she lied to them; she has always been clear about her bisexuality, but The Dykes see this as a political move and use this opportunity to shun her and to bully her. Etta takes this all in stride – she’s got confidence issues just like all of us, but she’s still so fucking strong and she KNOWS this isn’t right. I love, love, absolutely love how Etta stands up for herself and how she internally processes all of this hatred toward bisexual people. The shit I’ve been working through for years is already apparent to Etta. And you have no idea how happy it makes me. It is so excited to see the word “bisexual” and to have a character call out another character when they refuse to acknowledge it. Like, this shit speaks directly to my soul; this book is screaming out loud all the things that I care about so passionately.
And Etta’s voice – you guys. I have never read a book where the character felt so authentic. She is a real person – she talks and acts like an actual teenager, she speaks just like all of us, do. Her brain is full of run on sentences and sarcasm and complete derailments from what’s going on right in the now. She goes off on tangents, she sorts through her feelings, she has this great internal stream of consciousness that is 100% real and 100% Etta. You’re going to know within the first two pages whether or not this book is for you when it comes to the writing style. It was hard for me to follow at first but once I got into Etta’s rhythm, I was all there.
I mean, seriously, this book has it all. There are a thousand and one theater references, there is racial diversity and sexual diversity like you wouldn’t believe (but actually you would because hello – this book is actually set in the real world.) The eating disorder angle is handled so honestly; between that and the bisexuality, I found myself basically just nodding my head vigorously every third sentence. There are sexy times! There are frank references to past sexy times! There is family, there is overcoming what you’ve always been told to believe, there is unconditional love, THERE ARE PARALLELS.
I had two teeny tiny issues with this book that obviously did nothing to lessen my enjoyment. One: the use of heterophobe. Look. There’s no such thing as heterophobia, okay? Stop trying to make it a thing. Etta’s ex best friend was acting like a leaking asshole because Etta dated a boy and Etta said she was being a heterophobe. Nope. What she was doing was perpetuating Biphobia. She could have use “biphobe” or even “misogynist.” “Asshole” works nicely here, too. Also: Etta’s current friends-with-benefits compares Etta’s race with her friend’s sexuality, saying that the cis, white male (who is gay) is living a worse experience than Etta because at least Etta’s family is black so she has someone who understands her. This seriously rubbed me the wrong way. Etta attempts to call him out on this – after all, James is still a white male and Etta can never do anything that makes her not black. I mean, this conversation is a lengthy one, and obviously I can’t speak for black people, specifically black women and the misogyny they face, but I felt this part of the book would have been better if it hadn’t been included at all.
Listen, we can talk all day about #WeNeedDiverseBooks, but none of that truly matters until we put our money where our mouth is. I know I’m trying to get better at diversifying my reading. If you are, too, (and even if you’re not – in which case, you need it even more than I thought) you need this book. This is laugh-out-loud, this is righteous anger, this is excitement and wanting to wrap your protagonist up in a giant hug. Not Otherwise Specified is such an important book – a book that would have saved teenage Bekka a lot of heartache.