"Natalie Sterling wants to be in control. She wants her friends to be loyal. She wants her classmates to elect her student council president. She wants to find the right guy, not the usual jerk her school has to offer. She wants a good reputation, because she believes that will lead to good things.
But life is messy, and it's very hard to be in control of it. Not when there are freshman girls running around in a pack, trying to get senior guys to sleep with them. Not when your friends have secrets they're no longer comfortable sharing. Not when the boy you once dismissed ends up being the boy you want to sleep with yourself - but only in secret, with nobody ever finding out.
Slut or saint? Winner or loser? Natalie is getting tired of these forced choices - and is now going to find a way to live life in the sometimes messy, sometimes wonderful in-between." (from Goodreads)
Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian
My reaction: it may look fluffy from the cover, but Not That Kind of Girl tackles a lot of issues that are really important to teens. The cover makes you think "light YA contemp romance" but you know what? This book really isn't a romance at all. Rather, it's an insightful look at feminism, friendship, perceptions of others and perceptions of yourself. And it's one that I was very impressed with.
The characters are the bedrock of this novel. They walk the line between "good" and "bad" without setting themselves down on one side or the other (the exception being Mike Domski, who — let's face facts here — had "chauvinist pig" written all over him from the very beginning). The reader will root for the protagonist Natalie, but will probably not agree with everything she believes or does; I know I didn't. But it is Natalie's faults that make her all the more real, and it is her journey to discovering these flaws that this story centers on.
There are so many thematic layers to this story that it's difficult to touch on all of them in a single review. Natalie's relationships with Autumn and Spencer both explore what constitutes friendship. The perils of judging others are also touched upon, particularly in Natalie's attitude towards football captain Connor. She comes off as an academic snob in her assessment of him (spoiler, highlight to read: he's apparently good enough to make out with secretly, but not enough to date openly) which really tells more about her than it does about him. Rumours and gossip also give the reader something to chew on, as they fuel many of the plot points in the book from the first page to the last. Think your teachers don't have their own grapevine? Think again.
But without a doubt, one of the central questions raised by Not That Kind of Girl is "what is feminism?" Different characters and their responses to situations embody various ideas about what feminism is. Natalie decries objectification of women in the media and believes that women shouldn't be dressing in a slutty way to get a guy's attention. Ms. Bee stresses the importance of women focusing on career goals. Spencer, on the other hand, enjoys being sexually confident and using her sexuality to get what she wants without feeling ashamed of it. Siobhan Vivian manages to skilfully show these perspectives without forcing the reader to draw a particular conclusion. Really, the only overall message the author seems to be trying to get across is simple but very positive: it doesn't matter what others think of you if you can respect yourself and you like who you are.
Best aspect: the accessibility of the themes discussed above. While the book isn't jam-packed with action, I read it quite quickly. The dialogue is authentic and the book doesn't take itself too seriously, the way many "issue books" do. Neither does it make light of the topics it addresses. Rather, it strikes a good balance between entertainment and food for thought.
Occasionally I thought the message came across a bit too obviously (for example, I thought the exploration of Natalie's exposure to gossip and her reaction was glossed over too quickly). Natalie herself sounds more like an adult sometimes than a teen — indeed, she acts kind of like a mom to Autumn and Spencer in a couple of conversations, and not in a good way. While it can be annoying, though, I think that speaks more to her personality than anything else. She sees herself as more mature than others, not as prone to making foolish mistakes, and behaves accordingly. For the most part, though, Siobhan Vivian avoids being preachy in favor of broaching these issues in an accessible way.
Also, I often found myself wondering what was going through Connor's head. He's not a great communicator and the reasons behind his actions aren't that clear. Guys can be very clueless, it's true, but Connor remains a mystery through much of the book and I feel like we don't get to know him as well as I would have liked.
Just one more thing I want to mention: while the book isn't plot-driven, and there aren't any jaw-dropping events, the author still demonstrates clever plotting within the storyline she creates. I loved that a couple of details we are shown in the first half (spoilers: Natalie spotting Mike leaving the science room, and Spencer pointing out the vent in the girls' bathroom) become more significant later on.
I liked that Connor called me by my last name. Some girls might have been insulted, because that was more how boys talked to each other, but to me, it was a compliment. And so was the word tough. I wanted to believe that he meant it. He'd said it before, that time on the football bench. But I couldn't figure out why he was telling me now, except to sweet talk me out of waking Ms. Bee. I needed to show Connor that I wasn't going to fall at his feet like the other girls at school. So I took another step forward and put my hands on my hips.
"You have no idea how tough I am," I said.
Final verdict: 4.5 shooting stars. If you're looking for a fluffy chick lit story or sweet romance, you won't find it here. What you will find is a book that teens should be picking up, tackling issues that they need to be talking about. English teachers and school librarians, take note, and stock this book on your shelves!
Note: this book contains some mature sexual content and language.
This book counts towards my goal for the Just Contemporary reading challenge.