Sunday, July 24, 2016

Book Review: Harmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly

Harmonic Feedback is a YA Contemporary novel about a sixteen-year-old girl who loves music. As a musician, it was gratifying to read a book about teens who love making music. One of the characters is a pianist, so that was awesome. Even more awesome was finding a book that represents disability in YA literature. Since my own sibling has ASD, I was looking forward to reading this book. 


16-year-old Drea has lived everywhere with her mom, who bounces from boyfriend to boyfriend and drags Drea across the country with her. This is especially hard for Drea, since her Asperger's Syndrome already makes it hard to have friends. Deciding that being lonely is better than rejection, Drea loses herself in her music: producing mixes and manipulating sound with her computer and collection of guitars. 

All that changes when they go to live with her grandmother. Drea must navigate the social minefield of high school while she deals with having real friends, and possibly a boyfriend, for the first time. 

Review: 4 stars! FYEAH!

I had a few problems with this book, but let's get to the good stuff first!

Harmonic Feedback felt like an honest portrayal of what it's like to be a misfit. Drea's symptoms are pretty mild, but even when she's coping well, she is constantly thinking about what her life would be like if people "knew" about her. She doesn't want to be defined by her disorder, but struggles to communicate with neurotypical people who don't know how to make adjustments to how Drea thinks, speaks, and acts. Drea also has to deal with social awkwardness, ADHD, and anxiety. Reading Harmonic Feedback was genuinely stressful. The descriptions of panic attacks had my heart in my throat.

A lot of this book is about not putting people in boxes. Used to being put in a box herself, Drea starts to do that with other people. She's standoffish and assumes everyone else is a "normal" jerk, because that's easier than approaching people and being rejected. She's forced to question that way of thinking when it comes to Justin and Naomi, her friends and band members. 

The author has ADHD and has a sibling on the autism spectrum. While "Asperger's Syndrome" is now a dated diagnosis (it's since been lumped in with Autism Spectrum Disorder), Harmonic Feedback is a thoughtful and honest portrayal of a character with AS who's just trying to live her life.

And now for the bad...spoilers abound.

On Justin

After Drea accuses Justin (our love interest) of being Mr. Conformist with his Nike shirt, he dresses as a Goth the next day -- mimicking her style in order to mock her. He thinks it's a big joke.

Of course, what he doesn't know is that Drea makes her own clothes because she's poor. Drea also processes sensations differently and can't stand the feeling of jeans -- hence all the skirts and velvet and general "goth girl" look.

So the rich kid Justin goes out and buys a whole new outfit specifically to mock this girl who doesn't fit in because he thinks she maybe sort of made fun of him. It's part of the book's message about not putting people in boxes, but damn if I didn't hate Mr. Love Interest for the rest of the book. 

The book's only queer character, Naomi, also gets a "put in her place" moment brought to you by Justin. After she tells him she kissed Drea, Justin scoffs and asks: did she think she was the first straight girl to kiss another girl for shock value? Naomi responds by saying, how do you know it was for shock value? We were alone, and I don't put my identity in a box. 

But Justin (our rich, straight, white male love interest) just says that Naomi can't possibly be queer because he has excellent gaydar and he would know. Her identity must meet with his approval and belief in order to be valid.

Yeah, on second thought, fuck Justin. 

On female friendships vs. romance

Justin is at the center of most of my problems with this book. If this had been a book about Drea and Naomi and their friendship of opposites, I would have liked it a lot better. But Justin comes between them, and together he and Drea make Naomi feel like an inadequate third wheel, which leads to the book's tragic climax. 

I guess I'm disappointed that this started as a story about a female friendship and ended up ruining that with a romance. Hell, if this had been a romance between Drea and Naomi, I would have been on board. But the book is littered with other examples of people picking their love interest over their friends, and the narrative does nothing to trouble that. Drea describes female friendships in the most derogatory, sexist way you could imagine: overhearing girls gossiping about each other in bathrooms, friendships being defined by backstabbing and hatred, how girls always turn on you, how Drea doesn't want to mix with those "common denominator" girls...

And OK, so Justin does have some redeeming qualities. He's a pianist. He has an autistic niece. He cares about family. He's nice to Drea once they get to know each other. He's also one of the few male characters you'll find, especially in YA, with rape as part of his backstory. I should just take the book for what it is. 

But there's also an anti-drug message running through the novel and that only makes me hate Justin more, if possible. 

On Drugs and the Bury Your Gays Trope

Justin, our Mr. Love Interest, has a drug-riddled past. But because his parents are rich, he got rehab and a second chance in the main plot of Harmonic Feedback. Our privileged straight male love interest gets to be redeemed, while Naomi, who also struggles with drugs, has to be punished with an overdose and death. 
Yeah, Harmonic Feedback kills off its only queer character with an accidental overdose because the narrative had to punish her somehow, and the characters were reading Go Ask Alice in English class so...the author wanted that tie-in? I don't know. Even the circumstances of the overdose felt massaged to get the "punishment" ending. Someone says that a meth dosage that can make one person tweak can give another a heart attack, and that's all the explanation we get. 

Naomi, a junkie who is dating a drug dealer, apparently didn't know that. Which I don't buy. The narrative doesn't even let us wonder whether it was really a suicide via deliberate overdose. That would at least give her some agency in the narrative. But, no. She's just a plot device. She's disposable because she's not part of the romance, and extra disposable because if you have no black characters to kill then it's time to Bury Your Gays. 


Despite all the negative things I just said, I really encourage you to read Harmonic Feedback and decide for yourself. The writing is phenomenal. I particularly liked how Drea describes music. And you know I think it's good because I dislike first person, and I rarely praise a first-person narrative voice this highly. It's up there in my top three with first-person character voices I just loved. 

Morality tales about drugs aren't really my thing; in my opinion, we already have Crank or, if you must (sigh) Go Ask Alice. Even Go Ask Alice presents a more nuanced and compassionate narrative about teen drug use than Harmonic Feedback. HF's harsh outlook on drugs and drug users comes partially from Drea's objection to her own medications: she would give anything not to have to take meds, so why would someone who's already "normal" want to alter their state with drugs? 

It felt like Harmonic Feedback was not just anti-drug, but anti-all drugs, even prescription drugs that could help Drea. In this book's view, anything that changes your authentic self is a bad thing. In that light, I'm willing to forgive the book...a little.

While I could barely stomach Justin and only ended up liking him by the end of the novel, I have to admit the romance was a good read. It was about Drea discovering herself and her boundaries, mental and physical, and learning to let go with another person. Because so much of what Drea feels is intense due to how she processes sensations, the sensory writing and focus on how feelings connect to the physical was, inspired.

And despite Naomi being a plot device who falls victim to the Bury Your Gays trope, she was a vivid character who acted as a great foil to Drea. Their friendship, though it ends tragically, is genuine.

Welp, that's my review. My feelings are mixed. If you've read it, let me know what you think in the comments. 

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