________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 37 . . . . June 2, 2017


Rough Patch.

Nicole Markotic.
Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017.
220 pp., trade pbk. & E-book, $15.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-55152-681-2 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55152-682-9 (E-book).

Grades 8-11 / Ages 13-17.

Review by Alex Matheson.

* /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



Every crack of dawn this week, I hurry to practice, skate, dash home, then run to school with my hair sprouting icicles. Every Social-Studies class, Max Bledsoe comes up with another way to call me an Ice Princess. "Frost Fairy" is today's moniker.

I've not only crossed him off my kiss-list forever, I'm ready to cross everyone off, girl or boy. Too much cramming takes a tonne of energy, especially if you cram for six subjects at once. At practice, Winnie says I look like a decoration on a wedding cake. I'm wobbly on two legs when I should be jack-pine solid on one. Training has kicked in with a vengeance, and it's more than just my legs that ache. I want my parents to be proud of me. I want Sammie to be proud of me, her sister who competes because she loves the game, not the trophy. Ha.

When I read the back of Rough Patch I was excited to learn that it was a novel about a young bi girl. Too often, only the L and the G of LGBT get their time in the sun. Bi erasure is a real thing, and bi visibility is important. I'm no figure skating aficionado, but I have enough of a passing interest in it (read: I sometimes watch it during the Winter Olympics) that I figured I could get into a story about a figure skater as well. That said, I soon came to learn that, unfortunately, Rough Patch was aptly named. I wanted to like it, I tried, and, just when it was finally winning me over. I was hit with an ending that caused me confusion and dismay.

      This is the plot of Rough Patch: Keira is a 15-year-old girl with an older brother, a younger sister who uses a wheelchair, and two working-class parents. She is a figure skater and is trying to go to regionals, she cleans dentists' offices in her spare time, and she has a best friend to whom she tells everything. Everything except the fact that she's bi, that she kissed a boy while she was away over the summer, and that she also wants to kiss girls.

      That's it. No confusing subplots, no fluff, just a girl trying to figure out how to tell her friend (and family) she's queer. Eventually, she does tell her friend, which causes problems, and she starts seeing a girl from school. If you like straightforward books, this might be for you. The issue I take with this approach to telling Keira's story is two-fold:
1) We're told almost everything and shown almost nothing. In any class I've taken on writing or film, I've always been told "show don't tell" (which is to say have an action take place, don't tell the audience about it). In Rough Patch, Keira spends the novel telling the reader that she's attracted to boys and girls and that she wants to tell her friend, but we don't have a lot of chance to feel that and inhabit those moments, to see her truly torn between two worlds. Perhaps this is a function of the first person narrative and living in Keira's head, or perhaps it is a function of:
2) The plot that we're given taking place in between what are, arguably, two vastly more interesting points in Keira's life. These points are Keira's coming out to herself, and her dealing with being outed and stabbed (yes, I'll get to that below).

      Perhaps author Nicole Markotic is looking to examine this specific time in a person's life when they're preparing to come out to friends and inching out of the closet. Far be it from me to tell an author how to write their book, but I think what is really interesting about a coming out story is the buildup and the resolution. Writing a story about wanting to come out is a bit like writing a story about a bomb dropping without detailing reasons why or the aftermath. I believe that's what people really want to read about: the political climate before, the race to arms, the survivors, the rebuilding, even the destruction. Rough Patch mostly strips us of that satisfaction. Any time I've had a conversation with a new friend who is also queer and we are discussing our coming out stories, the big two questions are 'When did you know?' and 'How did your family/friends react?'. I cannot recall ever discussing the in-between period aside from 'I was nervous' or 'I was afraid people wouldn't accept me'. To her credit, Keira does eventually tell her best friend, Sita, and the girl she starts seeing, and we see the results of that. What we don't really get to see is her family's reaction (in-depth), her friends' reactions, or Keira trying to understand or reconcile her feelings within herself (which is fair, Markotic doesn't need to write that story). It just makes for a lack of internal tension.

      Waiting for Keira to come out was frustrating, but, after she did, I started coming around to her. Keira's voice is fun and likeable. I didn't mind being in her head and, eventually, even started to enjoy it. Her parents, her family, Sita, and another character or two are pretty complex people who add to the story. Sita has a generally smart approach to sex, and you care about Keira's sister Sammie. While I liked the people, it was the storytelling around them that I had problems with. There were one or two odd stylistic choices (such as a sudden half-page shift in how dialogue is displayed). What kept bringing me out of the story, though, was some of Keira's characterization as it relates to the real world. Each chapter ends with an 'Alert'. We get Spoiler Alert, Het-girl Alert, Lesbo Alert, and Idjit Alert. I've never heard a gay person use the term het or het-girl/het-guy. I looked it up, and it seems to come from fan fiction. Idjit, or 'eejit' as my Irish friends would say, is either Irish, or comes from Supernatural (a show with a vibrant fandom that is very into fan fiction). This would all make sense if Keira had ever once mentioned fan fiction in the story. That I would be willing to gloss over as a quirk in her speech.

      What really got me, though, was how Keira sometimes speaks and what she thinks is cool. I have a hard time buying that the same teen who decries Hall and Oates as a bad figure skating music choice because they're an old band that even the judges would be too young to appreciate would also be quoting Austin Powers, know who Ginger Rogers is, and wear a 70's inspired Halloween costume. She also texts like it's 2007, using a lot of abbreviations like b4 and "r u ready 4 test" (p. 73 in my copy). This is fine, she has an old phone, but she says at one point, "most kids my age don't do much with their phones besides text" (p. 114). This is patently false. More than once while reading this book I had to double check to make sure it takes place in present day (it does). Obviously I am reading this with a critical eye. Some readers may not notice these things, some may simply not care, but my inclination is to believe that Keira is far-enough removed from being a real relatable-seeming teenager that it will be hard for some real teens to identify with her.

      Now to the stabbing. Markotic has, for some reason, decided to continue the long-standing tradition in YA literature of queer kids facing violence, being murdered, or attempting suicide. That's fine, that's her prerogative, but I don't believe it was done effectively. In what can only be described as a whirlwind, Keira goes to her Halloween dance. There she: makes up with her best friend, spots her religious maybe-girlfriend (Jayne), who shouldn't be at the dance, across the crowd, is kissed by the boy she kissed during the summer whom she hasn't talked to in weeks (months?) and who has travelled six hours to see her without telling her, chases Jayne (who saw the kiss) outside, and finally, is stabbed by Jayne's brother for being gay. If that sounds like a lot to digest, primed for a nice denouement, let me also explain that this all takes place during the book's last 12 (of 217) pages, including the epilogue. We also find out that everyone finds out why Keira was stabbed, including her parents, and that her father has moved into a hotel as he doesn't want a gay daughter living in his house. These events would, arguably, make the novel a much more interesting read if they were positioned as the focus of the narrative, rather than being tacked on at the very end.

      We had just found out that the regional figure skating competition was to be the day after the dance (this revelation felt rather sudden, the timeline can be tricky). Perhaps Markotic was trying to make a commentary on how an incident like this can stop all plans in their tracks. Perhaps, though, it was just meant to be a surprising twist. When revealed so late, the twist can't help but feel a little like some sort of morality tale, which I'm sure the author wasn't going for. I also didn't feel like I got the proper resolution, or that these issues were explored in their complexity. We are left with a Sequel Alert, so perhaps there is more to come. My problem is that we do get closure, just not enough of it. If a sequel really is in the works, ending after the stabbing, or waking in hospital, could have been effective, but instead we are left learning what happens, how it's dealt with (in brief), and then the novel concludes.

      Rough Patch helps fill an important gap in YA literature that features bi characters. The question is, are there better representations of bi characters out there? Yes, there are. While I give the author kudos for choosing a bi protagonist, for the way she writes her characters talking about sex, and for creating a likeable main character, I find the book, itself, to be relatively dull, and then suddenly chaotic. I think that the violence shown at the end is not explored as in-depth as it could be, nor is the parent abandonment. Would I read a sequel? Perhaps I'd give it a chance. Perhaps it will be the novel I wanted to be reading all along.

Not Recommended.

Alex Matheson is a children's and teen's librarian in Vancouver, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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.
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ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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