Review: Down to the Bone

(Cross-posted at We Read to Seek a Great Perhaps)

Down to the Bone book coverDown to the Bone
by Mayra Lazara Dole
Published by HarperTeen (HarperCollins), 2008
ISBN 9780060843106
Lexile 640
Pages: 351, plus glossary
Ages: Grades 9 and up
Awards: CCBC Choice Award, America’s Award Commended Title

I was excited when I found this book included in a list of YA books with LGBTQ themes. The majority of books I’d found had white, male protagonists and relationships; Down to the Bone was about a Cuban-American lesbian. As a teacher of Hispanic students from a variety of cultural backgrounds, I thought this book would be an excellent addition to my fledgling LGBTQ library. I put in an interlibrary loan request, and eagerly waited my turn to review it.

The first thing I have to say – as a lover of booky things – is that it’s a good-looking book. The edition I read was a petite hardcover, with stylistically-appropriate fun typography. I immediately had two issues with it, however. My first issue was that nothing about the front cover art (except, perhaps, the author’s name) flagged this book as being about Hispanic youth. I wished that they had chosen a more obviously Latina cover model – the girl they photographed could have been from anywhere in the world, and while I understand that this is good marketing, it doesn’t do much to draw in the target audience. Secondly, I felt uneasy about the back cover, which consists of two quotes by prominent authors of LGBTQ teen fiction. One quote includes the words “lesbian book” in bold, 48-point lettering – and I worry that many potential readers would step away from this book simply because they don’t necessarily want the world knowing what they’re reading about. (This seems like an especially strange production choice, given the attention the author pays to gay/lesbian teens’ common desire for secrecy or anonymity.)

I pay so much attention to the outside of the book primarily because the inside of Down to the Bone was disappointing. The awkward dialogue and stiff exposition turned me off within the first chapter:

“Until you tell me who you’ve been having indecent, immoral sex with in my house, you won’t be allowed to leave the house, bring friends over, or talk on the phone.” Her voice rises in a frightening tone. “I just got married to Osvaldo. Tomorrow we begin our honeymoon, the first vacation I’ve had in six years, and you do this me now? He better never find out or he’ll divorce me. A woman  needs a man, and I’ve started my life again. Don’t you dare ruin my chances of staying with him!”

It was several days before I returned to the book, determined to see if it would redeem itself. The verdict is… sorta. The story itself is interesting, and after a while I tuned out the clunky prose and focused on the unfolding telenovela – because this book is definitely a soap opera. The protagonist, a Cuban-American girl named Laura at the end of her junior year in a Catholic school, is outed, expelled from school, and kicked out of her home in one awful day and 22 rapid-fire pages. In the next 330 pages, Laura runs the gauntlet of teen (especially gay teen) drama: breakups, “cures,” workplace discrimination, stereotypes, doubt over sexual orientation, experimentation, drug use, STD scares, dating, drinking, clubbing, fights with parents, fights with friends, and the struggle to find one’s own voice.

All this makes Down to the Bone sound fairly sordid, which it is not. I wouldn’t hand it out to a class, but I wouldn’t hesitate to have it in my library (as far as content goes). Many of the issues are peculiar to Laura’s cultural surroundings, but the overall themes are much more widely applicable. LGBTQ teens will probably be especially interested in Laura’s attempts to date outside her “type” after breaking up with her girlfriend and subsequent realization that she can’t change her heart. The main theme of this book is acceptance – painted in broad strokes as Laura’s friends embrace her the way she is, and as her mother rejects her for being degenerada – and while Dole’s prose falls short, her message rings clear.

Another excellent feature of this book is the glossary at the back of the book, which provides translations for the terms and phrases the characters use throughout the book. Laura and other lesbians in the book are repeatedly described as tortilleras; I interpreted this as “lesbians” until the glossary clarified that it was a Cuban slang word for “disgusting dyke.” Whether intentional or not, I thought this was a wonderful and subtle lesson on the power of words – not understanding the connotation of the word caused me to misuse it, somewhat like students who use “gay” to mean “stupid,” and the characters’ adoption of the word simultaneously weakened its toxicity, just as the word “queer” has lost much of its sting after being adopted and used by the LGBTQ community.

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