Part of the great fun and excitement in reading debut authors is that if you find a really good one, you feel filled up with happiness in thinking of all of the great reading that is in store for you down the road, as this writer keeps on writing. This is exactly my feeling about Lauren Bjorkman. Her first novel, My Invented Life, is a fantastic look at sisterhood, drama geeks, and the far-from-simple subject of sexual identity. Funny with depth = my idea of pure reading delight.
Roz and Eva have always been as close as sisters can be. They share interests and friends and secrets. Sometimes, they’ve shared boyfriends (though not at the same time). In fact, currently, Roz would be more than happy if Eva would hand over her guy, sexy skate god Bryan. Roz hasn’t ever minded much that Eva is the prettier sister, the more talented sister, the more popular sister. She loves Eva like crazy, and that’s why it’s driving her nuts that Eva seems to be shutting her out. When Roz gets the idea that Eva has fallen hard for her friend and cheerleading partner, Carmen, she tries to get Eva to come out, but it isn’t so simple. So Roz comes up with a crazy scheme hoping to inspire her sister to open up. She decides to pretend she’s lesbian, to try coming out just to see what happens and gauge the response of their group of friends. Needless to say, her plan gets a lot of attention, and far from making things easier, just ends up turning everything upside down. Toss into the mix all of the gender-bending action in their school production of As You Like It, and Roz can barely keep up with the general insanity. It turns out that her invented life is no easier to manage than her real life, but it sure makes her think about labels and trust and the course of true love.
There is a wild and crazy energy to this book, and Roz is at the heart of it all. Whether she’s skidding into dangerous territory with the sleazy-but-hot Bryan, or designing a new “femme lesbian” style for her starring role in “The Lesbian of Yolo Bluffs High”, or reading sentimental coming out stories online, she’s always going about 100 miles an hour. She springs off the page. She’s one of the most “alive” characters I’ve come across lately, like a gust of fresh air. You won’t always agree with her choices, but you can’t stop yourself from wishing she was your best friend in high school. Think of all the fun/trouble you’d have had.
Another great pleasure in My Invented Life is the cast of quirky secondary characters. Just when you think you’ve got each one figured out (“Oh yeah, there’s the nice guy love interest…” “OK, here’s the damaged but cool girlfriend…”) Bjorkman twists things around to show you a side of a character that you hadn’t predicted. Nobody is one dimensional (except maybe Bryan, “the sleazeball”). You know you’ve arrived at a whole different level of YA fiction when you find yourself imagining novels following the lives of several secondary characters.
If you’re feeling a little bit uncertain about the playful way in which Roz responds to her sister’s sexuality, I hear ya. At the beginning I was uneasy about Roz “pretending” to be a lesbian, just for the fun of it, treating coming out as a game, or as acting practice. But fear not! Bjorkman takes Roz from her prankish and somewhat disrespectful starting place towards real insights about the complexity of sexual identity. I was happy with the “all’s well that ends well” spirit of the ending, but perhaps there might be readers out there who feel it romanticizes the reality of teens who question their sexual identity. I’m curious to see what others say.
My Invented Life is a romp, but the issues it plays with are certainly worthy of discussion. I’ll be reading whatever Lauren Bjorkman writes next. (I’ll also be playing with the Elizabethan Curse Generator I found linked at her blog. Thanks Lauren!)
My Invented Life is published by Henry Holt tomorrow (September 29/2009).