Super productive, Claire Hennessy not only works full time in Penguin Ireland, but also manages to produce novels at a rate of knots. Nothing Tastes As Good was only published last July, and yet Like Other Girls is due to be published next month. I received a NetGalley copy of Like Other Girls thanks to the publisher, Hot Key Books, and read it over the course of the latter half of last week and the weekend. Unsettling and pointed, this book covers a myriad of issues, tackling mainly the pressures on being female-bodied in Ireland but also shining a light on issues of being LGBT (mostly B & T) in Ireland.
Here’s what Lauren knows: she’s not like other girls. She also knows it’s problematic to say that – what’s wrong with girls? She’s even fancied some in the past. But if you were stuck in St Agnes’s, her posh all-girls school, you’d feel like that too. Here everyone’s expected to be Perfect Young Ladies, it’s even a song in the painfully awful musical they’re putting on this year. And obviously said musical is directed by Lauren’s arch nemesis.
Under it all though, Lauren’s heart is bruised. Her boyfriend thinks she’s crazy and her best friend’s going through something Lauren can’t understand… so when Lauren realises she’s facing every teenage girl’s worst nightmare, she has nowhere to turn. Maybe she should just give in to everything. Be like other girls. That’s all so much easier … right?
Hennessy’s books are always packed with strong female characters who are troubled in some way. For Lauren, she’s struggling with issues with her best friend, her kind of rubbish boyfriend, and the main issue of the novel, every teenage girl’s worse nightmare.
My main problem with this book – and I suspect that it was actually written to be this way, meaning that I just didn’t click with it, not that it’s a bad book – is that Lauren is actually not a nice or empathetic character at all. Despite (or perhaps because of) being a teenager identifying herself as LGBT and struggling with the usual issues that most cisbodied teenage girls deal with (periods, hormones, body confidence, etc), she has little to no empathy for the issues that her friends and colleagues are dealing with. Rather it seems like she identifies her own issues as paramount, and brushes anything anyone else might be dealing with to the side.
Now, in a lot of ways this is actually incredibly true to life. Everyone is fighting their own battle, and it seems most of the time (especially when you’re a teenager) that nobody has it as hard as you, and nobody understands what you’re going through. And while that’s true, nobody has the exact same struggle, everybody has some degree of empathy, and if you reach out, you’re likely to find a great deal of support.
Lauren, certainly, doesn’t have it easy in the book. Alone and isolated, without support, she finds herself struggling to obtain the help she needs because of the backwards country she lives in. Hennessy writes with honesty and no small amount of disgust about the near-total unavailability of abortion in Ireland and the struggles pregnant women in Ireland face to obtain control over their own bodies. This is an issue I feel passionately about, and as far as this book deals with it, it is absolutely spot-on. Lauren isn’t especially likeable, and she doesn’t have any tragic circumstances which would ‘justify’ her control over her own body, but she’s presented sympathetically and honestly, and if this were the bulk of the book, it would have been a stellar favourite for me.
But where I thought Like Other Girls fell down is that it throws in a whole lot of other issues at the same time, and I felt like this made it lose focus. The narrative also considers several of Lauren’s trans friends, and Lauren’s reaction to her first sapphic experience (I think… it’s not entirely clear in the book) as well as the struggle of her mother becoming her school principal and the difficulty of the rubbish school musical (when Lauren is a massive musicals fan, and would have been excited to do any of the classics).
Now, again, I realise that real life is messy, and issues don’t pop up one by one to be dealt with in order in nice book-sized chunks. Life can be a clusterfuck and things will all seem to happen at once. And the author does do a good job of representing that. But with something as hugely important as access to abortion services in Ireland, I felt like it deserved more focus in the book than it actually got.
My other issue with this book was actually the title. Or perhaps not the title, but the way it was presented from the blurb. While Lauren is self-aware, and notes that she’s not like ‘other girls’ in her school inasmuch as she’s something of a loner, but it’s problematic to depict the other girls as something less than valid and full human beings, the final two lines of the blurb set this story up as if Lauren would try to hide her ‘other-ness’, her queerness. But she never does that. Lauren is never anything less than 100% herself, trying to deal with life as best she can, and not denying any aspects of herself.
I like the idea that the title could be read differently, that Lauren would like other girls – referring to her own identity as bisexual – but I think that might actually be me reading too much into it.
So, overall, this book had absolutely stellar parts. For wit and pop culture it was spot on, and its handling of issues of access for Irish women to abortion services was absolutely heartbreaking (in a good and important way) but I felt like the book sometimes had too much going on, and lost its impact along the way.