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Book Review: South of Sunshine by Dana Elmendorf

South of Sunshine by Dana Elmendorf is a YA contemporary romance, which is a little outside my typical genre. However, I really liked it. Here's my review and analysis.

Summary 

The small town of Sunshine, Tennessee still seems stuck in the past in many ways. Apart from its Southern charm, it still carries the legacy of segregation and racism, elitism and poverty, and homophobia. As a closeted lesbian from a "quality" family, Kaycee is just trying to hang on until high school graduation to come out -- if ever. But the arrival of the new girl -- gorgeous, athletic, smart, and kind Bren -- throws a wrench in that plan. Kaycee decides to stop denying who she is and risk a relationship with the new girl. But being gay in Sunshine could put her, Bren, and the life she's always known in real danger.



Review: 5 STARS! FYEAH!!!


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South of Sunshine follows the essential romance structure: They Meet, They Fall, Everything is Wonderful, Something Bad Happens, Everything Sucks/They Break Up, Reconciliation, and HEA (Happily Ever After) or HFN (Happy for Now). It's how a romance embellishes on that structure that makes it great or not. 

Kaycee is a charming character that many readers will like instantly. Her character journey cleverly mirrors the romance novel structure, because this isn't just a romance. It's a story about Kaycee learning to accept herself for who she is. 

In the beginning of the novel, she's dominated by fear and disgust: fear of others finding out she's a lesbian, and disgust for the relationships she attempts with boys. She also has a great deal of disgust for her secret self. In the middle of the novel, when she's in a secret relationship with Bren, her lingering fear and her newfound recklessness create a dangerous combination that leads to the destructive complicating events. During the Everything Sucks section, her primary motivators are regret and guilt, leading to Reconciliation and Kaycee's acceptance of herself in the end of the novel.

Overall, Kaycee's narrative voice is unique, charming, and often compelling. Another unique element is the inclusion of Kaycee as a lesbian character of faith who doesn't lose it over the course of the novel. While Kaycee's anxiety at being caught out taints her relationship with Bren, the joy of romance and first love still comes across strongly through Elmendorf's skillful writing. The Tennessee setting draws the reader into the culture of the small town without feeling forced or overly stereotypical. And while the novel contains some SERIOUS ISSUES, it's a hopeful book at heart. 

ALSO, they decide to try and steal the homecoming float and turn it into a gay pride parade -- complete with RAINBOW ELVIS -- in the most epic senior prank of all time, so, you know, there's that too. Too many times, novels build up suspense, drama, and misery for a wimpy ending that leaves you dissatisfied. In South of Sunshine, all the drama in the first 9/10ths of the book is worth it for the epic payoff at the end. 




On intersectionality

South of Sunshine does an excellent job on addressing not just homophobia in isolation, but intersectionality and prejudice. For instance, the town is more accepting of "trailer trash" Charlotte Wozniak and her girlfriend Jacinda, because they're both poor and one of them isn't white. The prejudice is that gay people aren't "well bred." As long as Sunshine's old money, good religion whites don't feel threatened, they can tolerate homosexuals because the narrative supports their own superiority.

This is why Bren -- a lesbian Latina star athlete from a wealthy biracial family -- is so threatening to Sunshine's high society. She and her family don't fit the mold. To make things worse by Sunshine standards, Bren could "pass" as mixed-race-and-rich-enough-to-count-as-honorary-white-person but instead chooses to hang out with the black kids at school. As a character who doesn't fit easily into boxes, Bren often acts as a conciliator and a mediator between the different cliques.

As a poor white girl, Kaycee is both a beneficiary and a victim of this prejudice. The "classier" (aka: whiter) elements of town visit her mother's shop, but she has to conform to their expectations or risk her mother losing her reputation, the shop, and her livelihood. A key point of tension in South of Sunshine is Bren's valid desire to be acknowledged as Kaycee's girlfriend vs. Kaycee's valid desire to be safe. If Kaycee came out as gay, it could be a financial hit that their family couldn't afford. Bren, with wealthy and accepting parents, can't understand that.

Context is important

Not sure if there's an LGBT+ version of the Bechdel Test, but if there were, this novel would pass with flying colors. In fact, Kaycee's exploration of her true self reveals that gay culture and other gay characters are thriving, even in the more conservative South.

Van is one of the novel's treasures. Of Kaycee's two best friends, Van is gay. He's a key part of helping Kaycee accept herself and make the first move on Bren. However, the character is not without flaws; despite being semi-closeted himself, he's all too quick to give Kaycee the righteous rundown on being too afraid to own her identity. He criticizes her for not acknowledging her girlfriend, yet keeps his boyfriend Arthur squirreled away in the next town where no one can find out about him. This leads to a series of fights throughout the book, and you wonder whether their friendship will survive.

Kaycee finds pockets of acceptance in her life that she never expected to find, from straight as well as other LGBT+ characters. In a memorable moment, one of the hick-i-est, most redneck, clueless straight white male characters turns out to be a sympathetic, unequivocal ally when even her own best friend doesn't fully accept her. In making a change to her own life, Kaycee learns that many people in Sunshine are also ready to make a change towards a more accepting world. They just need a push.

And for the bad...

Probably the worst thing about South of Sunshine is its portrayal of the only bisexual character. Chelsea "Chesty" Hannigan is practically a caricature of the evil, conniving horny bisexual slut out to steal your boyfriend and your girlfriend, and then gossip about you later. Literally, that's what she does. She "steals" Kaycee's fake boyfriend, then makes a move in on Bren, then gossips about Bren and Kaycee. 


Source
The reason I find this so spectacularly shitty in an otherwise thoughtful book is that bisexuals often get no end of shit from gays and lesbians for "not making up their minds" or "not being gay enough" or "bisexuals are promiscuous" or "trying to pass as straight"...and "Chesty" Hannigan somehow manages to check every "Bad Bisexual" box. Kaycee thinks all those things and more about her, and while some of it is due to jealousy, it just seems...excessive. Especially since Kaycee makes a weak attempt to co-opt the bisexual identity once she gets caught out with Bren. 

To Elmendorf's credit, Kaycee does have her moments of sympathy for Chelsea and comes away thinking of her differently than she did in the beginning. However, the portrayal of the (only) bi character is kinda nasty, and that ain't cool, y'all. 

Conclusion

It's a damn good book. I liked it, and I don't read romances very often. I was expecting a weepier, more heavy, depressing "issues" book along the lines of Harmonic Feedback, because that's been my experience with YA contemporary. Pleasantly, South of Sunshine is simultaneously serious about its issues and hopeful about their resolution. The low points are low, but the high points are fucking glorious. Nobody skips off into the sunset, but nobody is DOOMED FOREVER or dies, either. As far as romances go, it's basically the perfect "Happy for Now" ending.


Have another rainbow. (Source)

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