Book Review: Style by Chelsea M. Cameron

 In Reviews - Books, The Writing Life

Let me preface this review by explaining something about myself:

I am a dork.

I am a dork, and I like silly, dorky movies and books.  Especially silly, dorky romcom teen stuff.  I don’t know why.  I mean, I’m almost forty.  But I love Say Anything and Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire.  (Anything brat pack.)  I also love Ten Things I Hate About You, Not Another Teen Movie, Barely Lethal.  Of course — D.E.B.S. and But I’m a Cheerleader.  I love Glee.  (Okay, actually, I love the first three seasons of Glee and then got increasingly disappointed with each subsequent season.)

So when you read this review of Style, you have to understand this context first when I tell you how much I enjoyed it.  Because I loved it.  I grinned the whole way through and read it in one sitting, taking up most of my day off when I’d *really* intended to get some writing done instead.

But I have to warn you that it wasn’t *amazing,* it wasn’t brilliant.  No Booker Award for the writing.  But if you can relate to the preceding paragraph, then you should totally read this book. It’s a very cute coming out tale about an ultra-femme cheerleader whose known she was gay since she was twelve, plus a sort of plain-Jane-but-somehow-irresistible nerd who’s just figuring out her sexuality at eighteen.

Wait — maybe I should back up a second.

The Set-Up

I bought this book because the first few lines really caught my attention.  I’m not looking at the book’s opening right now, so I’ll have to do this from memory, but basically it’s:  “Stella Lewis is like Satan in a blonde package.”  Loved that.  Made me laugh and *of course* made me want to know Stella immediately.

The book is told from alternating points of view, both in first person.  Kyle is the aforementioned nerdy-irresistible girl who’s just beginning to figure herself out.  Stella is the blonde Satan, the popular, pretty cheerleader who’s known she was gay since puberty.

The reader figures out pretty quickly that Stella’s bitchy demeanor is all about protecting herself.  She knows who she is, but she doesn’t want anyone else to know, because if they do, it could jeopardize the comfortable, top-of-the-high-school-food-chain situation she’s set up for herself.  And likewise, from the first paragraph of the book, Kyle has a crush on Stella that she recognizes but can’t bring herself to admit.

So what do the two girls do?  They act like you do when you’re in elementary school and you like someone but can’t bring yourself to admit it:  They make each others’ lives miserable.

Of course, the reader realizes as soon as Stella’s dad makes her sign up to AP English what’s going to happen — she’s going to end up in the same class as Kyle and they’ll be forced to interact.  And then one thing will lead to another and…  Well, you can guess.

What I Liked

It’s a cute story.  Like I said, I grinned the whole way through.

Given my long-winded rant about coming out stories, I was really pleased with how this book reversed a lot of typical tropes in teen queer love stories.  For starters, normally it would be Kyle who realized she was gay, Stella who didn’t, Stella who denied her attraction.  But this book pulls a (pleasantly) surprising reversal.  Stella, the super-femme, is the one who came to terms with who she is a long time ago.  Stella is the one educating Kyle.  Stella is the one who kisses first.

Their oscillation between awkwardness and eagerness is endearing and one of the things that makes the story grin-worthy.  They’re both so into each other, and both so afraid the other might not be as into them as they are into her.  (<– speaking of awkward, poor sentence construction, hope that made sense?)  It’s very cute and very realistic.

I also liked the myriad of questions that coming out prompts for both characters.  Should we just be open?  Are we gay or bi? (<– which lasts for about 10 seconds, btw.  They’re both super gay.)  What’s our status?  What if we get confronted by homophobes?  Society has changed, so it won’t be a big deal… right?  RIGHT?  Kyle in particular goes through a phase when she realizes that being gay is far more complicated than just being attracted to women.  And who do you come out to first?  How?  And when?  And what will they say?  There’s a whole lot of other practical considerations that they’re going to have to think about that they haven’t needed to deal with before.  That resonated with me and I thought it was insightful of the author to include it.

But in the end, they realize what most of us realize eventually — at some point, it’s just not a big deal.  It’s not a big deal, most homophobia is ignorant-but-harmless (*most*), and after a while, frankly, you get bored with your sexuality occupying the forefront of your mind and just get back to being you.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

With all due respect to the author, and as much as I liked it, I don’t think this was quite a five-star read.  If I give it a review on Amazon, I will definitely give it five stars, because I enjoyed it a lot and because I totally want to support other indie authors, especially those writing gay characters.  But between you and me?  Not five stars.  That doesn’t mean it wasn’t good, just not five stars good.

Here’s why:

1. Everybody’s psychic.  

Even from the first few pages of the book, it’s hinted that everyone seems to know the two main characters are gay, while they feel like they are fooling everyone.  Now, while I appreciate the fact that many of the people closest to them said things like, “Oh, I’ve known *forever* you were gay” (which incidentally is what my grandmother said to me when I came out to her), I still felt a little like everyone around the two main characters knew a bit too much and I found it to be too much of a stretch of the imagination.

I spent *years* hiding who I was, and, c’mon, I was the most obvious gay in the world.  My hair was short before it was fashionable; I was an athlete; I wore flannel like it was going out of style.  For Pete’s sake, I had a fantasy life in which I was a boy named Daniel who lived with my grandfather while we grew our own food and “lived off the land” until I was eight years old.  And yet still there were people in my life who were surprised when I came out.  So the fact that everyone close to Stella and Kyle, who are both more feminine than I am by a factor of about 1,000, seem to know that they’re gay before they do came across as a little unbelievable to me.  It felt a little like The Truman Show.

Also, especially considering my rant about First Girl I Loved, is it hypocritical to say that the complete and unconditional support everyone gives the characters when they come out a little *too* rosy?  Kind of like the opposite extreme?

(Yes.  That’s probably hypocritical, so never mind.)

2.  Dialog formatting drove me crazy.

This is my biggest criticism, and it’s one of those picky writer criticisms that might not bother anyone else, but the way the dialog was physically formatted on the page made me nuts.  Example from a section of the book told from Kyle’s POV:

“Yeah?” She nodded.

“He’s really perceptive, but he hasn’t pushed me or anything. If I told anyone, I’d tell him. Or at least I’d tell him first.” I nodded.

The way it’s laid out, you would think the first line was Stella’s, the second line was Kyle’s.  But it’s actually the reverse.  Maybe that doesn’t make sense, but think about how it would’ve read if it had been formatted differently:

“Yeah?”

She nodded. “He’s really perceptive, but he hasn’t pushed me or anything. If I told anyone, I’d tell him. Or at least I’d tell him first.”

I nodded.

Do you spot the difference? By putting Kyle’s “Yeah?” by itself and Stella’s nod in front of her own dialog, then separating out the “I nodded” at the end, it would’ve been much easier to keep track of who was saying what and whose POV we were in.

Like I said — picky.  But it still made it confusing to read dialog.  Since the dialog accounts for large chunks of the book, it was distracting and obnoxious.

3. The abrupt beginning of their relationship was a bit jarring.

I really liked the sweet, sensitive moment the two girls have when they first admit their feelings for each other.  The hesitancy, the awkwardness that’s punctuated with a bunch of repressed emotions rushing to the surface — I thought that was well-done and authentic.  But there are aspects of the beginning of their relationship that… I don’t know, the pacing just felt off.

For example, Stella has been cold and hard the whole book up until the point where they admit how they feel, and then she just flips a switch.  In an instant.  Totally different personality.  Of course, we’ve been hearing half the narration in Stella’s voice, so as readers we already knew she had this other side to her, but her sudden reversal with Kyle and quick removal of all her walls is just a little *too* quick.  Stella feels relieved and released once she admits openly to Kyle how she feels, and so up to a certain point, her reverse-course makes sense.  But it’s just a bit too fast, a bit too easy for both of them.

Conclusion: A bare minimum of 3.5 stars, more likely 4, maybe even 4.5

Yeah, the book had its flaws.  But it was good and I still enjoyed it.  And if you’re a dork like me, a Gleek with a big crush on Santana Lopez who’s watched The Breakfast Club so many times you’ve lost count, I think you’d enjoy it, too.

(Also, I think if I had read this book when I was sixteen, seventeen, I would’ve loved it and read it over and over again.  So it’s also great for people who are NOT almost forty and who are still in the questioning phase.)

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