It’s no secret that I tend to like my books on the bleaker side of things. I like when my characters have to suffer a bit. But sometimes, I come across a book that is so friggin delightful that I find myself smiling through the entire thing. That’s exactly what happened with Guy In Real Life (G.I.R.L). I picked this book up as part of the Forever YA book club. I have to admit that I was a little hesitant going in. A book about a metal guy and a D&D (Dungeons & Dragons for those not in the know) girl and their unexpected romance. Hmmm… not entirely my cup of tea. I probably wouldn’t have picked it up without the prompt from the club. I really didn’t know what to expect. I’m happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised. Very pleasantly surprised
On its surface, this is a love story. Opposites attracting and such. After a drunken binge, Lesh has a literal run in with Svetlana – knocking her off her bike and destroying an entire summer’s worth of work. They should hate each other, and that is their first instinct. They do not like each other. But as they’re forced further from the initial incident, they realize there’s a real attraction between them. But that’s the super simplified version of what this novel is about. What it’s actually about is social and personal acceptance. Being different from your friends, or your family, or the person you always thought you were. Being true to yourself – even if that means allowing that self to adapt and change.
This book presents a microcosm of society. In a lot of young adult fiction, we get a direct comparison between popular and unpopular kids. These books work in their own ways and serve their own purposes but the comparison of those social groups is easy. They’re so different. They are against each other by nature. If popular and unpopular got along there would be no distinction. But in G.I.R.L we get the unpopular against the unpopular. The weird metal kids against the weird gamer kids. And then the breakdown within those worlds. Video gamers vs Tabletop gamers. Metal girls vs Gamer girls. Trolls vs elves. There’s this almost pathological need to categorize people, especially in high school, and how these labels fall out impacts every relationship. All you need to do is read the other reviews of this novel to see how deep the obsession with labelling runs. Insistence that Lesh isn’t a metal kid. He’s a goth. He’s too stereotypical. He’s not stereotypical enough. Metal kids can’t be gamers. Svetlana is a hippie. She’s not a hippie. Hippies can’t be gamers. On and on. There’s a hierarchy to how we see people, even within the groups in which they exist. I’d love to give teens hope and say that this goes away after graduation. It doesn’t. It’s still there, but eventually, it no longer matters.
I’m going to take a second here and veer away from the main characters to talk about Lesh’s friend, Greg. A guy who shows just how the social hierarchy can steer people so terribly wrong. Good novels contain characters that are both likable and detestable. Unlikable characters in a novel are essential for creating tension. And sometimes you’re going to hate characters. What’s important is not the likability of the character but the believability. Is this character representative of someone in real like? Greg is. And the person he represents is awful. I read a review where the reader stopped reading soley because of this character. He’s an annoying ponser who deserves a massive smack across the mouth (not condoning violence – especially against children), but he does represent a very realistic type of person and shouldn’t simply be ignored or written off. Greg is a gamer, but not like Svetlana. He is a video gamer. In Lesh’s eyes, Greg is just a kind of losery friend with few social skills. He is seriously involved in MMORPG culture and he’s been desperate to get Lesh to play with him. When Lesh finally gives in, Greg’s true nature becomes apparent– one he isn’t able to articulate to the people around him.
He’s the guy who, in real life, is always the lowest on the totem pole, but in this virtual realm, he is top dog. He’s not who he is in real life, and it brings out his absolute worst qualities. He has a very specific view of what men are supposed to be. Of what makes someone manly. In his view, Lesh has to play as a troll character and has to be as violent as possible. Healer and female characters are met with violence and disgust. Or absolutely lewd, disgusting, misogynistic behaviour. Greg is one of those male gamers that believe girls have no place in the gaming world (think gamer gate). He flat out says so – in a seriously degrading way. When he discovers that Lesh is posing as a girl in the game, he is completely freaked out. So much so that he stops talking to Lesh. So he’s setting up this conundrum – girls aren’t allowed to play, but guys aren’t allowed to pose as girls either. But then who would his judgy ass ogle while playing? Okay, I’m falling down a rabbit hole of off track. My point is, if a character is realistic, you shouldn’t discount a book just because you don’t like them. Lesh never says that he agrees with what Greg says. He actually makes it pretty clear that he doesn’t. Guys like Greg exist. And they give gamers a bad name. All gamers. (I’m not even a gamer and I know about this whole controversy). But he’s a character to compare Lesh against.
Lesh is one of the most interesting male characters I’ve read in recent young adult fiction. He’s more than just a romantic foible. He’s not just a boy. He’s got depth, but not like Dawson level depth – I know, I know, topical, right? But that’s kind of my go to ridiculous teenage boy characterisation. Lesh doesn’t even realize he’s having an identity crisis until he meets Svetlana. There’s something about her that makes him start to look at himself. It’s not like he immediately starts to shed his personality. Realizes that metal is not the way to go. He never does that. He keeps his metal side but still considers that maybe there’s more to him. In a truly creepy set up, he starts to imagine himself as Svetlana. He creates an avatar that resembles her, is named after her, and embodies everything he thinks she is. But he doesn’t do this so that he has a little spank bank material. Oh no. That would almost be normal. What he does is takes that avatar, goes online, and pretends to be that girl. Pretends to be a girl. He is a G.I.R.L. And he feels totally comfortable doing it. And when Svetlana finally finds out and confronts him about whether he wants to be with her or to actually be her, he can’t answer her. So, what does that mean? Is this a novel about gender identity and discovery? I don’t think so. I think it goes back to what I was talking about before – being true to yourself, even if it makes you uncomfortable, and being willing to change.
When Lesh starts to take notice of Svetlana, one of the things respects the most is how she embodies exactly who she is. She is always confident. She is always perfect in her imperfection. She is always true to herself, even when other people don’t respect what that means (we’ll talk about that in more detail later). Lesh watches this strange girl and begins to compare himself. Here’s this person that’s so confident. And here he is, so not like that. With the comparison, he starts to want to know himself better. And through his online persona, he’s able to do just that. Until he and Svetlana start to develop a real relationship. Then he’s able to start figuring things out in real life.
Now let’s talk about Svetlana. Here’s another thing this book does differently than other YA books. The girl is older. She’s a couple grades ahead of this boy. I know it seems like a little thing, but it literally almost never happens. The girls are always either the same age or younger than the boys they are interested in. Svetlana’s a seventeen year old high school senior and an experienced Dungeon Master, an excellent student, and an expert crafter. She is so amazingly self-assured it’s almost offputting. If she’d been in any other social circle, she might have read a little fake, but that’s not how it works here. I can picture her clearly. So confident and so outside the norm. She’s the type of girl that people seem to want to mold to fit the norm because she’s so sure of who she is outside of it. And Svetlana isn’t the only girl like this in G.I.R.L. Svetlana and Jelly are both super confident girls who have no desire to be part of the main stream. They are polar opposites vying for Lesh’s attention. Both girls flaunt their differences. They dress exactly how they want to. Svetlana in long skirts with hand embroidered dragons and skulls. Jelly in crop tops and heavy make up. Both of these girls know exactly who they are at this exact moment in their lives. In more typical/predictable fare, these girls would be the object of makeovers to make them more appealing. But Brezenoff lets the girls just be who they are.
I love the way Lesh and Svetlana come together. Not the drunken encounter, but their interactions in the cafeteria. Lesh takes his place at the loner table, exactly where he would be expected to be, but Svetlana finds herself in his company through way of escape. Fry is the only injection of popular we get in the novel. He’s the boy her parents want her to date – big, jocky, sports guy whose parents they get along with. The only reason he’s even in her orbit is because of her parents. Svetlana gets a lot of flak in reviews for how she treats Fry and her relationship with her parents. I say fuck that! Svetlana isn’t a little girl. She’s a seventeen year old who is about to graduate from high school. She’s not an adult, but she’s old enough to tell her parents when she doesn’t want to participate in something she really doesn’t enjoy, and she’s certainly old enough to know – and voice – when she’s not interested in dating someone. She’s made it very clear to Fry that she isn’t interested in him. Very clear. It’s basically his responsibility to respect that choice. How on earth is it her fault that he doesn’t respect her? And why should we punish her for his terrible behaviour? I like that Brezenoff has written a female character that isn’t always strong, but doesn’t just give in to the boy because it’s the nice thing to do. Fry’s actions are the thing that should be looked down on. Take that message away from this book. When a girl or boy says they’re not interested, back the hell off. Don’t make it their fault that they’re not interested in you. Hey, maybe if you show them some respect, maybe they’ll see you’re not a dick and change their mind. Maybe they won’t. It’s not your choice to direct someone else’s feelings.
Overall, this novel is excellent. It’s funny where it needs to be funny. It’s serious where it need to be serious. There’s so much I could say about this novel. There’s so much subtext when you start looking beyond the surface. I could go on and on about things – The way gamers treat each other and the gender divide so clearly present within that culture. The incessant need to categorize others. The expectations we put on girls to submit to the whims of the men in their lives. But this review has to end somewhere. I think this is a book worth reading. I’ve recommended it to several people. Maybe it’s because I have people that represent all of these lifestyle choices in my life. Maybe it’s because I love a book that let’s the female characters have a voice beyond ‘what a cute boy’. Maybe it’s because it’s just plain old well written.