“When you think of yourself as so different, you become so different. All you’ll be able to think about are the ways that you’re an outcast.” – Everything Must Go, Jenny Fran Davis
I started this book knowing absolutely nothing about it, other than the fact that it’s YA, it’s contemporary/mimetic fiction, and that I love the cover. One of the things I didn’t know was that it’s an epistolary novel. The whole story is told in a series of letters, emails, blogs and journal entries.
Another thing I didn’t know was this story is about Flora Goldwasser, a rich kid who loves vintage clothes, who falls in love with up-and-coming artist Elijah Huck. Elijah told Flora about Quare Academy, a Quaker school where he would be teaching, causing her to change schools to be closer to him.
Elijah never showed up to teach there, but Flora soon became determine to show her friends, family, and new classmates that she had what it takes to survive in Quare.
As I started reading this book, I thought that Flora was an interesting, clever person I’d enjoy getting to know, except for her obsession with Elijah. I didn’t get her obsession, and I think around 20% in, I was wondering if this was going to be a long read about this girl angsting over some boy who never ever seemed worthy of her attention. I was even wondering if it would be worth finishing the book.
But then Flora began making friends at Quare, and while she never truly fit in, and some of the other students never truly accepted her, she began to think about the values the school was promoting. I loved the way she went about it – understanding and accepting the good points, the intentions behind some of the rules at school, but never not questioning them when she thought the rules needed questioning.
I loved the school, and the coursework that Flora and her classmates go through. I remember screencapping a few of their assignments and sending them to my family, saying that I wished we had similar assignments in school. And it wasn’t that Flora wasn’t already a strong person on her own (again, aside from the Elijah thing), but I think Quare truly helped her transform into the person, and artist, that she was meant to be.
Flora had started out as a funny, self-deprecating rich kid who was perhaps a little shallow and self-centered – she was never mean, although perhaps ignorant and quick to judge. Before Quare, she was Elijah’s “manic pixie dream girl” – the fun, quirky girl in anachronistic clothes who became his muse as Miss Tulip (I loved the Miss Tulip sub-plot!). After a year at Quare, Flora had turned into an intersectional feminist who had learned to see that people are often a lot more complex and interesting than first appearances may show.
The title of this book came from an art project she did at Quare. I’m not going to say what she did exactly, because I did like reading how she came to her conclusion. One of the themes of her performance was on how people put values on one another and themselves, and how every interaction become (or makes us) commodities – how some people are kind or do favours for others because they expected something else in return, for example. In an interview, Flora said, “Girls are not machines that you put kindness coins into until sex falls out.” It was one of those things that shouldn’t be a big revelation, and still something that many of us need to learn.
Another thing I liked was the “no shell speak” rule at Quare, one of the things that Flora couldn’t get completely behind at first, but saw how it changed how she saw things/people later on. The rule encouraged students to look beyond a person’s “shell” or outer appearance, which they were not to mention to each other, whether to insult or to compliment. Instead of telling someone they had a nice sweater, or their hair looked great, students were told to look beyond these things. When compliments were give, they were for how well they solved a problem, or their kindness, their creativity, and other things that reflect who they were rather than how they looked like. I liked the idea of this, of course, but I also liked the debate that this rule sparked between the students.
I am so glad I finished reading this. I’ve read a few feminist YA last year, but this one in particular took me completely by surprise, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I only wish that my first read was not on kindle, where the formatting made everything a little confusing – but that only makes me want to get a physical copy soon, so that I can experience it all over again.
I read an e-ARC of this book, on my phone. Thank you Netgalley and Wednesday Books!