a book review: Brian Katcher’s “Almost Perfect”

“Erica, Erica…have you read this book?”
“uh, no. been kinda busy lately actually…last four years or so, really.”
“But it’s about this trans girl in high school and this guy who falls in love with her…”
(Erica lets out a long, drawn-out sigh) “…so how bad was it?”

this review contains SPOILERS for the above book. if you want to know what happens, keep reading. if not, here’s a bunch of pictures of wombats. wombats are adorable!

okay so let me put it out there: while i did not dislike this book, it ends on a very conflicted note, and the author definitely wraps up the story arc way too fast and the end result is a little clumsy. i don’t like how the book ended because while i am not SO picky that you have to end up going into the sunset together and happy, the reality is that the book ends on an unclear note as to whether or not a person who is clearly happier and better off as a girl has purged, and that’s kind of creepypants. i know it happens but do books always have to end with “trans antagonist/protagonist gets screwed?” it’s kind of a theme in YA fiction, as a lot of early queer YA books that dealt with teenage same-gender lovers did. people remember Annie On My Mind for a reason, and believe you me as a gay teenager that book was not exactly holding up hope.

anyways, the book comes from the POV of Logan, a cis straight kid from a small town in Missouri…so small that Columbia, not far afield, is the Big City. Logan is getting over a bad breakup with Brenda, and in a small town breakups kind of are tricky…it’s had to avoid each other in a small beehive. not too far into the book, enter Sage Hendricks, a tall, large-handed, husky-voiced girl who he falls in love with. and, well, since you already know why i’m reviewing this book, you probably have figured out that there’s something about Sage: she’s trans.

Sage generally isn’t a caricature, and you can tell Katcher really tried to keep her as humanized as possible. her family is not too happy that she’s trans, and she is definitely portrayed much more sympathetically than her emotionally dead mother or abusive, engendering father. for example, Katcher gets it right that when you haven’t changed your ID, or if you can’t change your ID, getting carded really can be the end of the world, and his sensitivity to issues of documentation is pretty neat. that said, this is Logan’s book, and Logan screws up pretty bad in terms of how he takes Sage coming out, but i’ve seen/heard of guys doing stuff like that exactly and then come around, as Dylan does. this is where i point something out: i’d have an easier time reviewing this book had it come from Sage’s POV, rather than Sage being this mysterious person with the double-whammy of being mysterious as both trans AND a girl in Logan’s eyes. and you know what? i’m okay with how this book was written, but i know a lot more about being like Sage than i do about Logan. i know the reality of pass-or-die life in school, i know about how weird it feels to be  the exception, and i definitely know about doing the move far away to get rid of everyone who knew you before thing, as my family totally did that, and i know something about parental shame…most of my mother’s was over my appearance and sexuality, not my transness, but it still makes me feel so vulnerable about these things to this day.

at least one other review bitched about how Sage came out to Logan, and i really want to stick up for this because i think when i was a teenager i did exactly this a couple of times: “I…” She swallowed, took a deep breath, and closed her eyes. “I’m a boy.”  alright, not exactly perfect in terms of how we present ourselves as adults but this is a book about teenagers and i know damn well i told my first few girlfriends what i was pretty much like this. let’s talk about the book’s good and bad and not seize on this, mmmkay? it’s not exactly easy to explain something you barely have words for when you’re a teenager…add in being trans and there’s often not even words that the other person would explain, and you say things like that.

the bad parts: Katcher goes a little too close to stereotype and lurid detail in dealing with Sage. the latter, well, the book was told from the POV of a teenage boy. i’ve never been a teenage boy, but i’m gonna assume that they’re probably into lurid detail since after all i really remember how much i thought about sex and the bodies of other girls as a teenager and i think maybe i probably would have been as bad. i also don’t like his proclamation against self-medication…sorry, dude, most teenage trans people only have self-medication as a choice. if you don’t like it, you fight the cis medical orthodoxy that says this, Mr. Katcher, and i’ll fight the trans orthodoxies that erase and trouble from within the trans community. also, there’s violence, because, well, it’s too common, and that violence ends up being the keystone to Sage’s crisis toward the end of the book.  Sage gets a very murky ending, not a bad one, but not one that made me smile or would give anyone hope, and that’s kind of troubling for me. i know it’s only a book but at the same time…trans kids out there could use something positive that affirms their humanity in their proper gender and nothing thus far has done so. i feel like this might seem a little whiny but at the same time please understand how weird it was growing up with no books about people like me and well maybe a couple of dyke “young love” books that weren’t that great in their endings either.

Logan ends up being a pretty cool dude, actually. he starts out kind of troubled but learns to accept, and even love, Sage. he stands up to Sage’s family when they’re bad to her, and though he and Sage end up not together in the end, he understands why and moves on and he gets the happy ending.  i think Logan was definitely supposed to be the nice sympathetic dude type and that’s fine. Logan is the kind of guy i would have been friends with in high school…one of the other poor kids, not pretentious or obsessed, but worried about his image almost as much as he worries about the people he cares about. i think in spite of some words he said the boy wised up and deserved his happy ending but i am one of those saps who identifies with people in books.

so Almost Perfect isn’t almost perfect at all, corny as that sounds. it’s a powerful, flawed, and intense read. i don’t think it’s good for transish teenagers because it presents Sage in sort of a tragic light that i really don’t think is good for someone dealing with it, though admittedly in hindsight i had a lot of “oh god that was me!” moments with this book and that was kind of tricky for me because it made it a lot more intense. proceed with appropriate caution and be appropriately forewarned but i think it’s a book worth reading.

maybe next time i’ll take apart Annie On My Mind since i keep referring to it here.