As Autumn Leaves by Kate Sands

#TBRChallenge hosted by Wendy @The Misadventures of Super Librarian

This has been a hard one for me to write. Not for any particular reason to do with the book, to be honest, but for COVID-19 reasons. I work in care. I work with disabled children and adults who have all the ‘underlying health conditions’ that are getting talked about as though that’s meant to reassure people, that it’s only killing old people, or sick people, or disabled people. Like that isn’t horrifying and terrible in itself.

Finding the time to read is hard. Or not even the time, necessarily, but the capacity – the ability to focus on the text without feeling guilty for not doing more or letting my anxiety overwhelm me. And then when I am reading, I am hyperconscious of all the other things I could be doing instead – if I were a better person, more altruistic, more organised, more, more, more. At the moment, stories have to really make it worth my while when they are competing against such highlights as ‘refreshing the news anxiously every two minutes in the hopes that things will magically improve’, ‘checking in with my friends working in education settings to see how they are coping’ or ‘crawling under my duvet, screaming into a pillow and praying this is all a bad dream I can wake from at any minute’. I read this book and I am not confident I know everything that happened in it, and it’s very possible that’s not entirely the author’s fault. I am scared and that is making me irritable, so there’s a very good chance that this is not as shit a book as I think it is right now.

That said, all of the main character’s problems are resolved by someone else handing her an explanatory leaflet containing information she could have found if she’d bothered using Google at the very start of the story, so I’m like 70% sure I still would have thought it was stupid.

The plot, as much as this can be described as having one, is basically a teenage girl discovers she’s asexual and gets a girlfriend. The girlfriend in question, Althea, has a memorable name and mohawk in lieu of any real personality of her own and as far as I can tell she just exists to be reassuring and blandly supportive. A pretty good match for our main character, who also has very little personality. She likes second-hand clothes and doesn’t like showing her boobs: those aren’t personality traits so much as they are ‘my Catholic grandmother talks about Fashion These Days being a Gateway to Sin’.

Our main character has given up cheerleading because it was too sexual and made her feel weird about her body. Which, maybe, I won’t pretend to know anything about cheerleading other than the cinematic masterpiece Bring It On, which I have seen exactly once, but seems a little weird for a school-sanctioned activity. She dumped her boyfriend and now is ostracised and called frigid. All basically plausible, shitty high school experiences.

They just also happen to be fucking dull. What’s the actual story? What’s the conflict? She thinks she’s broken because she doesn’t want sex, and we go through the whole story with her not once looking on the Internet to check that’s normal? It has been many years since I was a teen but the Internet was a godsend even in those distant days when it came to checking whether I was weird for having dreams or seeing stuff happen to my body; even if you can set aside the fact that Google exists, the resolution is cheap. She says ‘I’m broken, I don’t want sex’ and Althea says ‘oh, that is called asexuality, have an explanatory pamphlet’ and all of our main character’s problems are fixed. She reads the pamphlet, accepts all the information and gives it to her mother and it’s all incredibly easy.

That is nice. That is a nice thing to happen, if this were a real teenage girl who needed real sexual education, but in a work of fiction it’s just straight-up boring. All that inner turmoil, resolved in about two sentences, and then everything is immediately fine forever? As a reader, there’s nothing interesting in that.

You know what would have been interesting? Not giving Althea all the answers. Having our main character get a crush on her, want to start dating her, start thinking ‘maybe this will fix me, maybe this was what was missing – wait, why am I still not feeling the way I think I should’ and use that as the impetus to go and look into it for herself, instead of wallowing until Althea explains who she is. Or having her argue with Althea, stand up for herself instead of passively accepting the ostracisation from her peers and the teasing from her mother so that Althea’s explanation at the end seems less like a powerful affirmation of people’s right to be who they are and more like yet another example of the main character just letting other people tell her stuff about herself, regardless of whether or not that’s true.

I chose this book because of the title as I initially assumed it was a pun that would have some relevance to the story, evoking a sort of grief or loss or progression. There’s none of that. They go to a Halloween dance, that’s the only connection to Autumn, and nothing really changes until the very end (Althea’s pamphlet).

I don’t like hating books. I feel like I’ve had a bad run of things I just didn’t enjoy and I can’t tell if that’s because I’m not in the right state of mind right now, or if I’ve just been unlucky. In hindsight I should have just DNF’d because this was one Sunday afternoon I’m never getting back.

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