My Year Zero by Rachel Gold, in a sentence, is a YA all-girl love triangle with a Jewish lesbian MC, a bi-girl love interest, and a very satisfyingly happy ending full of love and tenderness.
Okay, now that my entire Mangoverse readership have gone and bought it just from that description—since it just came out today (I was reading an advance copy)—I’ll continue with the review😉
I like the fact that this book shows the value of an emotional connection and true interest in the other person’s well-being in a relationship versus just sex and fandom. I like the fact that a bi girl was the one who was able to give this to the MC. I like that the book had positive things to say about both girl sex and Jewish religiousness.
Lauren lives alone with her emotionally-distant-to-the-point-of-abusive father, and she’s at that age where some queer girls are chomping at the bit for their first girlfriend (I certainly was. Obviously not everybody but it’s good to have this kind of representation depicted as normal and healthy. Lord knows there’s enough YA out there where young women want their first boyfriend and young men want their first girlfriend.)
Into this emotional vacuum walks Sierra, who’s exciting, confident, older, and sends mixed signals. She has a boyfriend she doesn’t seem to want to admit to yet she flirts with Lauren after affirming that she likes girls, too. She introduces Lauren to her group of friends, who are all group-writing epic science fiction together. This friend group includes a token straight-guy douche and two other bi characters, one of whom is a Black guy named Kordell, and the other of whom is—Blake. (Yes, of course it’s realistic for three bi teens to be hanging out. Marginalized people often clump together.)
Blake is a fully-fleshed out “funny, sincere nerd” personality, but she also has a mental illness and Sierra’s let the illness completely blanket the rest of Blake in Sierra’s mind so for the first half of the book Lauren seems to see Blake through Sierra’s lies, if that makes sense. Readers: there is some unreliable narrator “the author is sixteen and being misled” going on, so please believe me that all of the bullshit gets exposed for what it is. It’s some pretty hateful bullshit, though. Sierra is not a nice person. (So expect Lauren to Fail a little, in her narrator voice, until she learns how to not be ablist.)
I was worried Blake would be written as some kind of a Manic Pixie since she has bipolar, but she’s not—it’s almost like there are two Blakes, the version of her Sierra thinks exists (Bipolar Blake!) and the real version, who’s a sympathetic, brilliant girl who actually cares about her loved ones instead of using them and finding a way to spin every conflict into something only the other person did wrong like Sierra does. Mental illness, as Blake points out, is “like the volume is turned way up but the song doesn’t change.” In other words, illness and treatment for illness aren’t you and don’t change that innermost core. I think Sierra wasn’t even acknowledging that Blake had an innermost core beyond her disorder.
Anyone who’s read my Climbing the Date Palm and thought “Gee, I like the Kaveh and Farzin dynamic, with the anxious one emotionally abused by an unloving father comforted by the confident, kindhearted math nerd—but I really don’t like m/m as much as I like f/f”—this is your book. This is exactly that, with f/f. And it’s easy to see why Blake is so sweet and full of so much love—like Farzin, she’s got a parent who truly nurtures, supports, and cares about her. (So does Lauren, but her loving, wonderful mom can’t have custody of her because she’s off doing field work in Afghanistan too often.)
I love the fact that the author allows Lauren to have a rich inner monologue, with lines like:
“I’d come out as lesbian about five seconds into the first time I kissed a boy.”
“I liked lifting weights. (I mean hand weights, not some massive deadlift Miss Universe thing—wait, Miss Universe is a beauty pageant. But Mr. Universe is a muscle guy? That’s messed up.)”
That makes me like the way her mind works. The line goes on–
“The thing about weights is that it’s me against myself and frankly, I’m pretty easy to beat, so I get to win a lot.”
Lines like that make me smile. Subtly smartass.
I do want to say something, though, about the way Sierra talks around her bisexuality: I’m whatever, you know, love is love.
I’m willing to believe in the diversity of the human experience but I just want to point out that I feel like I’m around tons and tons of bi people who identify as bi, pan people who identify as pan, and one lady who expressed her orientation’s fluidity by saying “I’m a lesbian!” for few days once in between two marriages to men, but I’ve never actually met anyone who defined themselves in the “whatever, anything, no labels!” way mga people seem to be in so much of our fictional representation. HOWEVER, the other bi characters–yes, plural–all call themselves bi and this character winds up being a lying hot mess villain, so I’m gonna chalk Sierra’s line up to “Sierra gaslighting” and move on. (There’s a note about this at the end of the review from the author, and I get what she’s saying–there isn’t really a way, within Lauren’s limited POV, to show that Sierra is eventually going to identify as a lesbian, not bi.)
Lauren is “ a fan of Sukkot, because no holiday that gets joyful over lemons can be bad.” I’m glad I met Rachel (if only online, so far) because we both seem to find etrogim equally squee-worthy. Sometimes it’s just a relief to be in a space—with a friend, in a book, anything—where fewer of the things that make me feel different from everyone else on the planet are actually different.
I found her descriptions of Purim welcome (hey, we just had that IRL!) and familiar (although at my temple we didn’t have the children in the congregation act out the story, as hers did, we just went around the room and took turns reading.) I also completely empathized with her anxiety over waiting for the inevitable awkward comment from her new gentile friend(s.)
Yes, there are bi people who “cheat” in this book, but so does the lesbian lead, and honestly it’s because of books like this and JL Douglas’s Lunaside that I’m really questioning the obsession with monogamy specifically as regards to teenagers. If someone realizes they’re in the wrong relationship at sixteen, and hook up with someone else in the process of trying to figure out what they really want out of life, that’s sort of the whole point of adolescence, isn’t it? I mean, otherwise our bat mitzvah around the start of menstruation (or something equivalent for trans girls) would signify our literal transition to full adulthood in secular life instead of just religiously.
But we don’t, we have another five or six years to get our shit sorted out (depending on cultural context.) That’s because we know we need practice and we need time. So I think it’s important for teenagers who do slip up and aren’t sure to have room to breathe. I didn’t marry the person I dated at sixteen and I didn’t even marry the person I was engaged to at twenty-one.
We shouldn’t deliberately hurt people, of course. But I can remember being 17 and having a one-night stand with another cis girl when my trans boyfriend at the time had grown more and more distant. Obviously I did the objectively “wrong thing” but at the same time he was basically done with me before I’d even met her, and we were all kids. It’s important to see people wrestling with this thorny shit in YA. I just hold adults to a different standard. And some of the kids in the book really do seem to get this because Blake and the other bi character, Kordell, were casually hooking up as friends before Blake and Lauren become exclusive. Which is also a thing that needs more positive representation.
Here’s my dipshit negative comment: the overdescription of people’s clothing was slightly overwhelming, but I think I’m hypersensitive to that. I’ve had more than one editor/beta reader tell me I need to use more description.
One last note: Rivka! Rivka is in this book. Except here she’s called Cyd. But she’s almost the same character—tall straight (I think? She used treyf in a sentence?) Jewish girl with my nose who takes the young lesbian MC under her wing and nurtures her with empowerment. Yeah, so add this to the list of Jewish YA that has nothing to do with the Shoah. Although I’d like to shoah thing or two to Lauren’s awful father, wow. (Yes, that is officially the worst pun I could possibly ever make in my life. I wonder if Blake—and Farzin—would approve.)
Added note from the author, Rachel Gold:
Is Sierra bi?
You nailed it in your review when you attributed Sierra’s “I’m whatever”
line to “Sierra gaslighting.” If we assume (as I do) that bisexual
identity not based on who you’re currently having sex with, but rather
based on how you feel inside and (optionally) the political stance
you’re taking – then the fact that Sierra has sex with both men and
women during the book does not automatically make her bi. She would be
bisexual if she said she was, but she does not.
She is not bisexual and she doesn’t say she’s bi because of two factors:
At the time the story happens, she’s actually still figuring out what
her real sexual orientation is. Sometime in her 20s, she’ll settle on
lesbian, but not everyone figures that out young like Lauren does. At
least (unlike me) she’s not claiming a bi identity in her teens to
placate her parents.
At 19, she’s attracted to novelty, influence and money. That’s not
something that we have a sexual orientation label for, hence her trouble
answering the question of what she is. (And hence the gaslighting sense
of: “Don’t look too hard at who I’m being and how I’m behaving.”)
This is not to imply that people who take a while to figure out their
sexual orientation are in any way like Sierra. People should get as long
as they want to work that stuff out and then be able to change it when