CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number . . . .September 25, 2015
Set in a typical Canadian high school and filled with recognizable characters, there is a comfortable familiarity to the backdrop of B.C. author Mette Bach’s first young adult novel, Femme. From Lorimer’s “SideStreets” collection, this high interest-low vocabulary novel may have a familiar context, but that supports and normalizes a modern and more challenging theme: the awakening of sexual romance between young women.
The main character is Sophie, a pretty, likeable, and underachieving grade 12 student. She has recently begun dating Paul, who is one of the most popular boys at school. Bach hints at a control dynamic that may be developing in their relationship - Paul tells Sophie, “No matter what happens, you have me. I’ll take care of you” – but, for now, he is tender and very passionate.
Then Bach introduces the tiniest of plot wrinkles, and everything shifts gears. Sophie’s English teacher has paired her with Clea for a final major project. Clea is on the scholarship track and is driven by her need to get out of their small, small-minded community. She tells Sophie, “Life begins after high school”. As a lesbian, she is also the target of her peers’ subtle derision. Paul sums Clea up as a “classic jock lesbo stereotype”. But Sophie is determined not to let Clea down and turns her attention towards her school work and away from Paul.
To her surprise, Sophie discovers that “Really, talking about literature and life and what it all means is cool, and I’m doing well for the first time ever. Who knew that if you write from your heart, you can actually do well?”
As Sophie unlocks and explores her natural love of learning, she finds herself mysteriously drawn to Clea. Clea is scornful of Sophie’s academic insecurities and inspires Sophie to work hard and to “not put yourself down”. When Sophie learns that Clea is planning a trip to Portland, she surprises herself by arranging to go along.
The Portland trip marks a turning point. The two girls explore the university and attend a GSA party where Sophie learns a word that seems to suit her new, awakening sense of self, femme: “I whip out my phone and look it up. Feminine lesbian.”
But now Sophie must try out her new identity in her old world. Besides proving to Clea that she loves her, Sophie must also extricate herself from her relationship with Paul, cope with on-line bullying from his narrow-minded friends, and attend the grad party as a femme. It’s a lot of plot to cover in 175 short pages. But Bach manages to bring things together in a satisfying, if slightly sweet, conclusion.
The first person narration helps to build empathy for the main character whose openness and willingness to take risks make her very likeable. But Bach misses opportunities to use dialogue and action instead of exposition to develop other characters or advance the plot, resulting in some patches of awkwardness.
Bach approaches the awakening sexuality theme with great gentleness. While the setting and characters may be familiar, the lesbian plot direction is brave new territory. Readers learn along with Sophie about the depth and breadth of this community as Bach purposefully avoids stereotypes and labels. Even Sophie’s breakup with Paul – a plot point with the potential to revert to typical teen drama tropes – demonstrates our capacity for growth and acceptance of others. As Sophie tells Clea at the end, “This is only the beginning.”
Charlotte Duggan is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any
other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.