Pink by Lili Wilkinson

Reading contemporary novels, particularly YA contemporary novels, is always an interesting exercise, as I have realized that I have this tendency that I don’t have with fantasy novels to compare myself or what I would have done to the actual character and their actions, and this tendency gets worse when I start recognizing traits that we both share. Maybe because I somehow translate “contemporary” as “relatable” in my head? I don’t know, my brain works in mysterious ways. All I know is that the result is I end up getting a lot more pickier about the book in question as opposed to a fantasy book, and that’s precisely what happened here.

Ava wants a change. She can’t wait to start Billy Hughes School for Academic Excellence where she can set herself apart from her ultra-radical, ultra-feminist parents, as well as her equally radical and feminist girlfriend, Chloe. There, she can wear pink clothing, do her schoolwork without being told she’s Submitting To The Man, and maybe even see if she likes boys or not, because although she loves Chloe, she’s not sure that she’s really and fully a lesbian the way Chloe is. Although she fantastically screws up her audition to the school musical, she joins the stage crew to spend more time with her new, popular friends, even though the stage crew is filled with misfits and “freaks”. What then occurs is a series of mishaps and realizations as Ava tries as hard as she can to be “normal”, and keeping all her separate worlds and identities from colliding and slowly realizing that boxes and normality hurt more than they help.

First off, there are a lot of things about this book that make me smile, most notably, the stage group kids, who call themselves the Screws. They’re each derived from certain character tropes, but they interact and joke in a way that reminds me so much of all my friends, both in high school and college. I loved how they all bonded together over the many things they loved and through those good times,  mutual respect and friendship grew as well. Also, there were some well-placed shout-outs to nerd-dom and even Tamora Pierce that made me smile.

I also liked how Ava’s curiosity as to whether she liked boys wasn’t cast as though she thought she was a lesbian, but really, she might be straight. She knows that she’s attracted to girls, but, to her, being a lesbian means hanging out in dark coffee shops and liking obscure poets and films. Ava basically attaches a certain culture to being lesbian, one she feels she doesn’t entirely fit in with, and because she likes typically feminine things, she thinks that might be an indication she might like boys as well. It was somewhat disconcerting that the words “bisexual” or “bisexuality” were never mentioned even once, but I still liked how the result was that, even for sexuality, labels aren’t always important to categorize how you feel for someone, particularly when it comes to gender. If you like someone, you like someone.

Ava herself was a lot harder to like and there were many times I wanted to reach in and smack her silly because her actions were not in “stupid” territory as much as they were in “I have my head completely up my ass” territory. All her life, she’s never really been her own person. First she adapted her parent’s ideals and followed their wishes. When she met Chloe, she became the person she thought Chloe would love the most. At Billy Hughes, she has to juggle being both a “popular” person and a part of the Screws. Each gives her something she wants, but she can’t put all those pieces together to become her own person because she so desperately believes she needs normality, and lesbianism and stage crew aren’t part of that realm. This desire, of course, causes her to be extremely insensitive and even manipulative at certain points as she tries to arrange other people’s lives to fit her expectations of what is “normal”. It also causes her to be ridiculously silly when it comes to Ethan, the guy her new popular friends convince her to get involved with. The dude can’t even remember her name, and yet she’s convinced he remembers her and is interested in her!

Part of my frustration stemmed from the fact that Ava was spending so much time placing herself in a box rather than asking what it was she liked to do, what were her beliefs? Throughout the book, both of those things were derived from the people whom she happened to be around at the time. Eventually she and other characters are able to reconcile the various boxes they fit or want to have fit, but I kept wanting more from Ava.

Also, there was one section on page 152 that was pretty racist, when one of the Screws spills some brown paint and they’re cleaning it up, and one of them pretends to be a Native American and says, “How… I am Paints With Hands.” It was honestly shocking to read that, as the entire book is about how no one fits into specific boxes with regards to any characteristic, including race. I get that it was supposed to be a joke, and Ava then says he’s being childish, but that’s not a rebuke for the actual racism inherent in what he said. That whole section seemed to be written callously and without thought that it perpetuates a harmful stereotype.

On the whole, Pink was a mixed bag for me. Ava was an extremely difficult protagonist to root for, but she managed to figure a lot of things out in the end. The Screws were probably what made the book for me, because they are the kind of people I wish were more visible in the world than they currently are. The writing was very engaging and I whipped through the book in a single day. Like I said, there’s a lot to like, but there’s also some elements that will turn at least some people off. Peoples’ mileage may vary.

Published in: on June 22, 2011 at 6:38 PM  Leave a Comment  

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