‘Girl Meets Boy‘ is a book I have never heard of until University (it was on my courses set reading list for the summer holidays). It is a retelling of classics – and what could be more classic than a book written in 8AD. For reference, it’s a retelling of the story of a poor family who cannot afford to have a female and therefore will kill their child upon birth should it be a girl. An intervention of the goddess Isis convinces the mum to somehow ‘go with the flow‘ – and raise the baby girl as a boy named Iphis. This continues until adolescence and is only feared to be discovered upon the marriage of Iphis to Ianthe. But another intervention means that Iphis is turned into a man and the story has a happy ending.
But my favourite thing about this book is that it deals deals with the idea gender fluidity or transformation within the context of heteronormativity. What Smith does, however, is to tell the story, or rather a story playing with similar ideas, in the context of two sisters, Anthea and Imogen (“Midge”). This is my favourite aspect of the book purely because I am a MASSIVE gender and sexuality nerd. Due to the classic story that the book is retelling, it means with the idea of sexual orientation / gender identity, which is something I like to read about – especially since the title (‘Boy Meets Girl’), is ‘a tale as old as time‘, which obviously raises the issue that heteronormativity and cisnormativity are two major issues within society. So its a modern retelling for the modern, political world.
Speaking of how it deals with gender, it deals with how the two genders and how they mix up – it doesn’t matter whether you’re a boy and a girl or whether you fall in love with a boy or a girl, Ali Smith deals with the transparancy between the two binary sexes beautifully.
However, the only minor criticism I have with the book is that it has a horrid sexist villain who is overcome and everything – but it’s a minor complaint (not the blatant sexism that exists within the villain) but the fact that the author, Ali Smith, has clearly retold the story with all the classic conventions that exist with classic stories and fairy tales (e.g. binary opposites like good and bad). But I do like how the book deals with sexism within society – like one of the female characters works at a water bottle company, which automatically means that she gets less pay than her male counterparts – meaning they paid less for the same damn job (and hence why the line “THIS MUST CHANGE.” is, in my opinion, so powerful).
Finally, Ali Smith has a poignant writing style, which is another thing I liked seeing as this is a modern retelling of a classic story. I’m kinda curious to read more books from her in the future.
“An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” by Hank Green has to be one of my favorite books of all time because of two very distinct memories – the first being reading it for a large majority of the time on the way to London to see “Hamilton: An American Musical” on my 19th birthday – and the second one is finishing it on New Year’s Eve / the early morning of New Year’s Day. When I did finish this book, I remember feeling a surge of positive energy, and this was the book that made me want to read more.
To start with, the characterization in this book was very strong – mostly because April May made a great self absorb narrator, and it even got to the point where we knew very little about those who weren’t here – but here’s the thing, everyone’s personalities which conflicted with Aprils, could still be felt. This was effective because it felt as though they could be actual people – rather than just people on a page. April could be pretty awful at times, and this plays into the idea of fame; she is fame-hungry, and I am not, so I don’t identify or relate to her a single bit. But surprisingly, I did like how Hank dared to let her make the wrong choices, again and again, and again, and then let her deal poorly with the consequences – this is effective because it made me feel bad for her in a way.
This idea of fame is the strongest subtext that this book has, and the only one I could find – after her friend Andy uploads the video of April and the Carl, April becomes an overnight celebrity, with her video gaining millions of views on YouTube. This causes her to develop a public persona because the video brings her the fame she never knew she needed.
Which leads me nicely to my next point – the two major themes. This is definitely an “idea books,” as it deals with the internet age. Therefore, the first major theme of the novel is the theme of social media and internet fame, which is proactively explored in Greens book – this makes it a new-age story, and involves several modern technologies (e.g. Wikipedia, YouTube, and Twitter). Combined with the sci-fi elements, it suggests that the internet has reached such a strong degree that communication with supposedly extra-terrestrial life only needs a slight extension of the internet. As with any large online presence, hate will arise, and one militant group, known as “The Defenders”, claim that the Carl statues represent something dangerous and are formidable intruders.
Which leads me nicely onto the second theme of this book is how our culture deals with the unknown and the uncertainty also plays a key role in this book – this is because of the attention that the Carls bring after the video was uploaded, and Miranda (a material scientist) theories that the Carls are structurally anomalous robots who want to collect materials from Earth for some unknown reason. This makes the novel dive deep into the science -fiction genre, and subsequently makes April May a public persona which interests the American government.
Speaking of how our culture deals with the unknown, the question of what the Carls are is not fully answered by the end of the book, which makes this book both a sci-fi novel and a mystery novel, which makes the plot that much more engaging – additionally, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing shows you how humans feel as though they are being “put to the test” by superior alien life forms, and that assumption changes humankind on a cultural level. Though admittedly I don’t have much experience of the sci-fi genre (and I must confess that I don’t like Star Wars simply because it isn’t my cup of tea).
But, because this is an LGBTQ+ blog, I need to talk about the LGBTQ+ representation – because yes, it is explicitly mentioned that April May is, in fact, a bisexual woman, and this is my biggest gripe with the book. I found it slightly odd that although April receives online harassment, none of it is because of the intersection of her sexuality and gender – I find it odd because it defeats the point of having a conversation about internet fame through the lens of a bisexual woman at all. – but obviously, I can’t speak for bi women because I am not a bisexual woman.
Besides, Hank does use the word bisexual to describe April’s sexual orientation, and obvious biphobia does exist in this world – but there’s absolutely no background information on how April has navigated her bisexuality and her gender, which are two parts of her identity which intersects with each other. Furthermore, she is forced to lie about her sexuality – which is understandable because biphobia sucks. This results in her framing herself as a lesbian when she becomes famous because that’s easier for many people to understand. However, I would otherwise say that April is a well-developed character, even though nothing about her felt queer to me.
When April, tries to unlock the mystery of the Carls, is challenged by a conservative older man who wants to attack the Carls, she fights back with a long, ranting video. Immediately after, she thinks, “I had no idea of this then, but by engaging with him, I was affirming him and his wackos. Their ideas were getting more exposure through my larger audience, and I (and, of course, every news channel out there) was confirming the idea that there were two sides you could be on, and also admits that “it was a huge mistake, and also great for views.” This means that many of these arguments throughout the novel can be applied to current American politics – though my biggest criticism with the idea is that it doesn’t actually take place in the actual, current American political system. This is because it is implied that Clinton won the election – I say implied because she is referred to only as “Madam President” throughout the novel.
I really enjoyed “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing”, and I would definitely recommend it. I particularly enjoyed the writing style and characters in the book, and though the LGBTQ+ representation wasn’t great, I greatly appropriate the ideas, themes, and subtexts the book had to offer. This comes as a pleasant surprise as I would normally choose non-fictional books other fictional books if I read more – but as someone who’s just starting to get back into reading again, this is a good book to start with.