17-year-old Gabe is passionate about music and wants nothing more than to host a radio show and talk about music and play his tunes and share his obsession with everyone. He hosts an hour-long midnight show on the local radio station once a week and finds obscure themes for his offerings. He soon has a small but loyal following.
His story is, for all intents and purposes, a typical YA coming-of-age novel: finding his way, wondering about girls, figuring out what comes next after high school. Except Gabe was born Elizabeth.
This is a tough one to review. I have been struggling to put my thoughts into words for a few days; while the execution comes up a bit short, the story is captivating.
Gabe is a great character, comfortable in his knowledge that he is male, but conversely, he expects everyone else to have trouble with it. He feels almost as if he has failed, and doesn’t deserve to be happy or protected, or accepted for who he is. He hides his true self from all but a chosen few, and can’t wait to leave his town so he stops worrying about being outed.
While the transsexual storyline is at the heart of the book, it is the relationships that stand out and really make the story. And while sexuality does have an impact on each one, it is interesting to see how in the end, it is not the most important factor.
John and Gabe have a wonderful relationship. Gabe is John’s musical protege, while John serves as confidant, with unconditional support and love for the boy. While I thought at first it was a bit of a grandfatherly relationship, as the story continues, you see a true friendship between the two. Having lived all his life surrounded by artists and music, John has seen it all. His only worry is that he slips up and calls Gabe Liz sometimes. His acceptance is in stark contrast to Gabe’s family and their reactions.
The relationship between Gabe and BFF Paige is as authentic and very intense. The two of them have complete trust and love for each other, even as they try to define what Gabe’s transition will mean for them. Paige loves and supports him, even as she struggles with her feelings of how to deal with the new iteration of the same person she has loved for so long. And Gabe’s feelings for Paige, and how he deals with them, are mature and tug at your heartstrings.
After Gabe is outed to them, the Ugly Children Brigade accepts Gabe and his A Side/B Side because they recognize it in themselves. And that is a great storyline. Sometimes you have to hold your breath and leap and hope for the best.
It is not all rainbows and unicorns, however. There are extreme transphobia and hate and violence, which sadly, rang all the truer after the horrific events in Orlando over the weekend.
I liked that at the end of the book, Gabe is still figuring things out. There is not a cliffhanger as such, but his life is not fully resolved. Art imitating life.
Even though the story is written in the first person, it is a bit harder to connect with him than I expected. Usually, with first-person narration, the reader feels like s/he is getting a glimpse into the narrator, hearing their thoughts, feeling their feelings. With Gabe, it is a bit like listening in on a conversation he is having with someone else.
As well, the relationship with Gabe and his family didn’t completely work. Obviously, I have no experience with this, but it seemed to go from complete denial to complete acceptance very quickly; where I picture a gradual coming-to-terms with a change of such magnitude after the initial refusal to acknowledge it, everyone seemed to abruptly turn a corner, even as they said they needed time.
But, despite the issues I had with the execution, this is a good novel. It is appropriate for the entire YA age range, and anyone who wants to know more about the trans experience.
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children was published October 8th, 2012 by Flux.