I'm reading more of Chelsea Cameron's stuff, and this was a YA contemporary romance novel of hers called Style.
In Style, a nerd and a cheerleader fall for each other. Nerd/jock is a trope in romance which I like, and Style does that except with lesbians. Kind of makes me want every romance staple trope but gayer.
One character is Kyle, a disabled girl from a poorer family whose helicopter parents are hyperfocused on getting her into a good college with lots of scholarship aid. She is focused on college too -- so much so that she doesn't notice she likes girls until she's hit over the head with a crush on ice queen cheerleader Stella.
Stella is a closeted lesbian and cheer captain who is also hyperfocused on getting into college -- because then she feels like she can come out to everyone and be her real, lesbian, self. When she's paired with Kyle on an English assignment, she has to decide whether to ignore her attraction to the cute nerd or let down her ice queen facade and risk the consequences.
These two start from a place of reluctant attraction and build a really lovely, meaningful romance.
Trigger warnings/content notes: Kyle mentions ableism; characters discuss anti-gay behavior; there are a couple anti-lesbian slurs in passing; mentions of past bullying; transmisia/trans erasure; acemisia/ace erasure/sex-shaming.
I'll admit, I'm so used to books about gay and lesbian teens being gloomy or having some giant homomisic crisis that I kept tensing, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it...doesn't. And I was very grateful to this book for that. If you get terrible secondhand anxiety, especially reading romances like I do, I REALLY recommend Style. Style will NOT do you like that!
Once the two admit their attraction and start seeing each other informally, the book's plot moves on to the question of whether they should sneak around or date openly and come out to everyone. I thought they communicated really well, but they have their difficulties. Kyle becomes interested in finding out why Stella puts on the "icy jerk" act when she's really funny and warm. Stella is conflicted between wanting to be herself with Kyle and wanting to protect herself from being hurt.
The bullying aspect comes in when we learn that Stella was horribly bullied by a group of girls from elementary through middle school. Although she doesn't get into explicit details, it was clearly traumatizing. She fears coming out and going through the same vicious bullying. Even though her family is already accepting of queer people, she still has a lot of fears around it.
Kyle initially flips out at the thought that she might be a lesbian, but once she accepts it as a possibility, she feels like, "Why didn't I notice this sooner???" That seems to be a pretty common experience -- and based on the author's note, is coming from a place of personal experience. Kyle does very briefly wonder if she's bi, but quickly figures out that nope, she's into girls exclusively.
Both girls ended up coming out to their best friends first rather than their families. For some reason, that felt authentic to me. It seems like best friends know a different version of you than your parents do at that age, and what might surprise your parents may come as no big surprise for a best friend. Plus, it's often more comfortable to talk to people your own age. Style shows how even kids from the most accepting and loving families can still have legitimate fears and struggles around coming out and dating. I think readers will really root for Kyle and Stella as they build their relationship with each other, their parents, their friends, and new people they meet.
If I could change just a couple of things about this book, I would change the jokes about pregnancy and the comments about masturbating. When Kyle and Stella talk about masturbating, one says that everyone does it unless they're "too uptight or something." The book was trying to say that yes, of course girls masturbate and that's ok! However, it does this by punching down on people.
This was an awkward moment of sex-shaming that could bite for a number of people: asexuals who don't masturbate or feel arousal, people who are struggling with "uptight" upbringings around sex, or even people with vulvovaginal pain disorders which prevent them from masturbating (fact: these are often caused by strict religious upbringings which pooh-pooh sex). Again, I see what the book was trying to do -- but shaming people who were raised with anxiety around sexual self-expression defeats the point.
The other thing which made me wince was the joke about how lesbians can't get each other pregnant. While this is definitely true for peri cis lesbians, it's not necessarily a good blanket statement for all lesbians. The amount of mileage the book tried to get out of that bit of humor was odd.
What I really loved about Style was how it addressed the pair's anxieties about college. They wonder whether picking a school based on where your girlfriend is going is silly. They worry about holding each other back and about the viability of long-distance relationships. However, they also talk through it and are able to get some advice from older, wiser heads. Stella's dad points out that hey, if she isn't committed to any particular college, why not go where Kyle goes? Aren't there worse reasons to pick a school? Why assume it won't work out from the start -- isn't that setting yourself up for failure?
All in all, Style was a happy read that affirmed the reader and the characters, taking us through the ups and downs of teenage relationships, insecurities, and hopes for the future. Also nice to see was a small town with a diverse population instead of being 98% white, abled, and straight/not-queer. Would recommend!