CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 25 . . . . March 2, 2018
Nobody seems to really know Ophelia. Not her mother, not her teachers, and definitely not her peers. But when Jeanne, an author of some renown, comes to the school to talk to Ophelia's class, Ophelia suddenly feels as though someone may actually care to get to know her. At the end of class, Jeanne gives Ophelia a notebook. This notebook is where Ophelia ends up writing letters to Jeanne and really letting herself become vulnerable. While out tagging walls one night, Ophelia finds what appears to be an abandoned warehouse where she is able to be herself. But when she discovers that another student, Ulysses, has already set up shop there, she isn't sure how comfortable she feels sharing herself with another human being. Throughout the novel, the two teens get to know one another, bit by bit, and develop a bond neither of them thought possible.
Told through unsent letters composed in her notebook, Ophelia's story is raw, honest, and peppered with an eclectic selection of photos and illustrations by artist Daniel Sylvestre. Gingras's writing is both poetic and reminiscent of a teen without much care for rules of grammar and style. Ophelia pours out her heart in each of the missives, slowly revealing her family situation—her single mother has had substance abuse issues, and a steadily changing lineup of boyfriends has made her fearful of letting anyone get too close to her, emotionally and physically. As she gets to know Ulysses more, they both find themselves opening up and—even through the odd fight—developing a much deeper connection than either thought possible.
While I found the raw emotions and expressive language that Ophelia uses throughout her narrative to be appealing, what I felt was unnecessary—particularly in terms of the sheer number of instances—was the repeated fat shaming of Ulysses. She repeatedly brings up his size using derogatory phrases, referring to him almost exclusively as "the fat guy" or some variation thereof. She comments consistently about his body: "his polar bear fat protects him better than any coat"; "he's too fat"; "He must weigh in at ninety kilos with his Buddha fat and his too long arms." While she does eventually fall for Ulysses and the two share first-time sexual experiences, the previous three quarters of the novel undermine the turn of events with the consistent body shaming language.
That being said, other aspects of the novel are exemplary, including the ways that Ophelia expresses her own insecurities and fears of physical encounters with other people. Gingras's writing is also unapologetic where sexuality is concerned. As Ophelia and Ulysses break down physical barriers and explore each other sexually, the honesty of Ophelia's descriptions is refreshing.
Overall, Ophelia is is a book that will speak to teens on many different levels. The combination of art, poetry, and stream of consciousness narration results in a thoughtful and illuminating book that will hopefully resonate with readers long after the final page.
Rob Bittner has a PhD in Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies (SFU), and is also a graduate of the MA in Children's Literature program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. He loves reading a wide range of literature, but particularly stories with diverse depictions of gender and sexuality.