Off the Shelf: Teen queer romances

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

How the world has changed: I can’t imagine either “Margo Zimmerman Gets the Girl” by Brianna R. Shrum and Sara Waxelman (Inkyard Press) or “Going Bicoastal” by Dahlia Adler (Wednesday Books) appearing on library bookshelves when I was in high school. In fact, it’s unlikely that they would have been released at all, unless by small alternative presses. Although I am not the intended audience for either book, I really enjoyed these works of teenage angst, which focus on the characters’ thoughts about school, family, friendships and relationships. In fact, it would have been a real loss if they hadn’t been published: both are delightful and fun to read.

The narration in “Margo Zimmerman Gets the Girl” rotates between two characters: Margo Zimmerman and Abbi Sokoloff, both of whom are Jewish. Margo has a type A personality and recognizes that she is on the autistic spectrum: this means she plans her life carefully in order to control what happens and her reactions to events. In addition to her academic success, she’s considered part of the popular group of kids at school. Her parents are loving and supportive (along with being very funny) and her older brother, Mendel, who is bisexual, enjoys teasing her, but also clearly cares about her. Their pets even have wonderful names. Margo has been dating one of the most popular boys in school – that is, until she comes to understand something that shakes her to her core: she realizes that she is attracted to women, not men.

For a person who has her day planned almost minute by minute, this is a great shock. It’s not just that she’s attracted to women. What bothers Margo is that she doesn’t know how to be gay. That’s right: Margo believes there is a correct way to do everything, including acting and dressing for every identity, and she has no clue what she should be doing. That leads her to ask Abbi, who is openly gay and someone she knows from the swim team, to teach her how to be gay. At first Abbi dismisses Margo’s concerns since she has problems of her own. Abbi’s grades are not in great shape and, if she fails the one class she shares with Margo, her college acceptance will be withdrawn. Since life at home with her parents is horrible (they not only fight all the time, but generally ignore her existence), she can’t wait to leave for college. Abbi makes a deal with Margo: help me pass my class and I’ll teach you how to be gay. The result is a laugh-out-loud plot of mix-ups and misunderstandings.

Margo and Abbi both claim that the other is not their type, but readers will know better. (This is a romance, after all, so that really doesn’t spoil any surprises.) The fun is watching them finally understand they are made for each other. The novel does touch on serious subjects, but it’s the snarky comments and the humorous actions that make the pages fly. 

While “Margo Zimmerman Gets the Girl” focuses on one romance, “Going Bicoastal” offers two. Its premise is very clever: Natalya Fox has 24 hours to decide how she will spend her summer. She can remain in New York City with her father, or she can travel to California and live with her mother. Natalya is not particularly brave or daring, so her father warns her if she stays in the city, she has to try something different. The thought of spending time with her mother makes her uneasy: the two have not remained close since her mother moved out and then relocated across the country. Natalya knows she will miss Shabbat dinner with her father if she goes to Los Angeles, especially since her mother gave up her religious practice after the divorce, but it would offer them a chance to reconnect. However, Natalya remains torn between her choices. 

What the author does is give the readers the best of both worlds: There are two chapter threes. In one, Natalya chooses to remain in New York City and, in the other, she decides to go to California. The chapters then alternate: Tal (as she’s called in New York) looks for a summer job and becomes acquainted with a girl she’s had a crush on forever. But Tal is unsure whether her new friend is interested in romance and still faces deciding what she wants to do with her life. In Los Angeles, Nat (as she’s called there) works as an intern for her mother’s company. However, the other intern is a young man who resents her because he worked hard for his job, while Nat’s was handed to her for no reason other than her mother is part of the firm. In both cities, Natalya finds romance. She also discovers that her artistic skills might offer her a future, something that is a relief since, at the beginning of the summer, she had no idea what path to follow after high school. 

Readers may wonder how the author resolves the difficulty of writing about two romances in one book since Natalya (both the Nat and Tal versions) will be in New York City for her last year of high school once the summer is over. The ending – sorry, no clues given here – was satisfying, at least to this reader. This is not the first book of Adler’s I’ve read (you can find the review of her “Cool for the Summer” (at Teens, in the present day and times past) and I hope it’s not the last. In fact, I look forward to more books by all the authors.