This Sporty Queer YA novel is the best book I’ve read in years
Let me start this review of Britta Lundin’s 2021 contemporary YA novel Like the other girls by declaring it a crime it didn’t get more attention. I’ve fallen in love with YA for the past few years and haven’t read it much, but I’m so glad I made an exception for Like the other girls. It succeeds on many levels: as a character study, as a fading romance, as a gripping sports story, as a feminist affirmation of sexism and misogyny, as a novel deeply rooted in the ‘Rural Oregon and Farm Culture, and more. This is one of the best YA – or dare I say books? — I have been reading for years.
There’s a lot going on in Like the other girls — effortless and deftly balanced, by the way — but at its core, it’s a story of a closeted butch lesbian teenager grappling with and overcoming internalized misogyny. Mara Deeble is 16, lives in a conservative rural farming area of Oregon and loves sports. She has anger issues, which peaked last winter.
With just minutes left in an important basketball game, a teammate alerted his coach that Mara might have a concussion after falling and hitting her head from a foul (which the referee didn’t even see, it’s exasperating!). Mara is prevented from completing the game. She is so furious that she punches the teammate who, after all, was watching over her. Mara is consequently expelled from the basketball team. The teammate in question is called Carly.
Carly is a wonderful character. She is a female out lesbian at their high school (in fact, the only queer out girl in her class). She is a committed activist for social justice, she is stubborn, she is passionate. She is a proud queer Asian who loves Hayley Kiyoko. She is Mara’s enemy. Mara is terrified of Carly, of the freedom and righteous anger that Carly embodies. Mara is envious of the easy acceptance Carly got from her mom after coming out of high school: “It’s like, ‘Okay, you have a cool mom who accepts you, stop rubbing it on us. face.'” Mara feels like her only option is to wait until she moves to Portland for college to come out.
For most of the book, Mara’s feelings for Carly translate to anger. Every conversation they have seems to lead to an argument. While Mara thinks this anger is about Carly herself, observant readers can see right away, as Mara later learns, that Carly is the wrong target. Institutional sexism in sports, her family’s likely homophobia that Mara is afraid to provoke, her mother’s manipulative gender police, the occasional misogynistic teenage cruelty: these are Mara’s real enemies. Learning to recognize them as such is his journey.
Let’s get back to the plot, and to the content that takes up the most space in the book: football. Mara’s basketball coach gives her an ultimatum: Play another team sport in the fall and don’t fight or let your aggression manifest as violence. Then she can be back on the team during the basketball season. Her coach suggests volleyball, which makes Mara want to gag. volleyball is girly. Girls playing volleyball wear makeup, hair bows and cute spandex shorts for games. Mara doesn’t fit in; moreover, she despises volleyball players. (Remember, I said she struggled with internalized misogyny – here she raises her ugly head).
Mara has a brilliant idea while passing a soccer ball with her older brother and best friend, Quinn. Both guys are on the football team. Why can’t Mara play soccer instead? She is much more interested in football than volleyball. Of course, she should play on the boys’ team. But she still considers herself one of the guys. She is tall, muscular and very athletic. She knows football. She’s sure that if she works hard, she can earn the respect of the guys on the team and have a great season playing a sport she thinks she’s going to love.
Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Mara is allowed to play reluctantly. The fact that she’s better than a bunch of team guys gives her more animosity, not less. And just when it looks like she might be accepted, four more girls — including, of course, Carly, as well as Mara’s longtime crush, Valentina — join the team. They were inspired by Mara.
Mara doesn’t want to be inspiring – at least not at first. In fact, she resents the other girls. She complains, “They make me look bad.” Things are going from bad to really bad, in more ways than one. The situation brings out the worst in most of the guys on the team, including Quinn, who has been Mara’s best friend since childhood.
Lundin does not hold back in his description of how toxic masculinity, gender entitlement, and deeply held beliefs about the inferiority of women and girls flourish in these adolescents under strained circumstances. The so-called good guys are not immune. Trying to be neutral is just a vote for the sexist status quo. And the only difference for the grown men who are the coaches is that they hide their misogyny a little better.
But this story, thanks to lesbian Jesus, is not about the boys or the coaches. It’s about Mara. As Mara unleashes her long-held prejudices about femininity and girls, she’s able to see guys (and their shitty behavior and double standards) more clearly. Temporarily, she forms real friendships with her teammates. She slowly begins to align with them, instead of pulling away from them. She learns that she doesn’t need to belittle femininity to express her masculinity or reject imposed femininity. The inspiring feminism of it all is incredibly moving.
Lundin handles Mara’s journey with such care and nuance. She’s not afraid of Mara making mistakes, saying and doing hurtful things, or just being wrong. I mean, the book opens with Mara hitting another girl! But there’s a constant thread of vulnerability in Mara and of compassion and understanding in the way she’s written that makes it impossible not to root for her. My heart sank for this kid. I just wanted to give him a big hug – and also sometimes a slap on the head.
Along with Mara’s growth and a lot of football, which this book managed to make fascinating to me despite my complete lack of knowledge and interest, there’s a delightful subplot about an older queer woman who becomes a kind of mentor for Mara. I held my breath during an early scene where Mara first noticed this butch woman, clearly new to town, walking into the store on the farm where Mara works. Mara sees a possible future for herself, a vision of a queer person who is exactly who she wants to be, thriving into adulthood. She is fascinated and terrified. It made me want to sob.
Lundin creates a heartwarming depiction of queer mentorship and cross-generational queer friendship. Mara remarks that she is able to talk openly about strange things with Jupiter: “I feel like I’ve spent my whole life underwater, and I finally came back up to breathe.” But Lundin also isn’t shy about the complexities and, frankly, the danger that comes with this relationship. In a homophobic world, a friendship between a locked-up queer minor and a queer adult their parents probably don’t want them hanging out with is risky. The scenes between Mara and Jupiter – her chosen name, she clarifies, like a classic dyke – are very sweet. But sometimes there is an undercurrent of worry and aggression from Jupiter. Readers can see that Jupiter weighs in on how much she wants to help this dyke baby with the need to protect herself from potential repercussions. It’s infuriating that she even has to think about it.
Like the other girls has a problem that I want to briefly address. There’s a scene near the end of the book that doesn’t feel internally consistent. To describe it loosely to avoid spoilers, it involves a reaction from a trusted adult woman to a sexual assault. It would be one thing for the adult to have a decidedly non-feminist answer, which could have been Lundin’s argument. Women, after all, are not immune to imposing sexism and rape culture. But the interaction needed a clearer narrative condemnation to fit the overall feminist sensibility of the novel.
Did I mention there’s also a super slow-paced, completely adorable romance? Well, there is and you will love it. There’s a girl there who rightly thinks Mara is an “idol”. Granted, there’s a lot more detail in this book about football games than minutiae about kissing or crushes. It’s not primarily a love story. But there’s just enough romance to balance out the heavier content. If you like to go through the emotional wringer reading about fictional lesbians like me, this romance has you covered.
We need so many more YA books like Like the other girls: those on the masculine of the girls in the center, those on the internalized misogyny, those which center the friendships and the mutual support of the girls, those which focus on the girls who play sports. Here is the hope Like the other girls will be followed by many more YA books, especially by authors of color, that pick up on these themes and put their own spin on them. If you have similar books to recommend in the meantime, share them in the comments!