Here’s the sad truth readers: I wanted to love YA novel Rough Patch by Nicole Markotić so much. IT HAS THE WORD BISEXUAL ON THE FIRST PAGE. I thought after that there was nothing this book could do to make me unlove how great it is to see the word bisexual used in fiction by a character to describe themselves right off the bat. Especially in a book for teens! Well, I was wrong.
Okay, so here’s a synopsis of the set-up and plot of Rough Patch (although admittedly, my description of the “plot” makes it sound more coherent than it actually is). Fifteen-year-old Keira is about to start high school in Calgary and she wishes she could just write “Hi! I’m Keira and I’m bisexual” on a nametag and get it over with. Of course, in real life she’s way too shy for that, and is scared of telling her family, her boy-crazy BFF Sita, and pretty much everyone else. She’s also still figuring out what being bisexual means, after crushing on her camp counsellor for the last two months but then making out with a boy at the end of the summer. She finds solace in training for the regional figure skating competitions, a hobby she acknowledges as geeky, and hanging out with her younger sister. When she and Sita have a falling out, Keira is drawn to a lesbian girl her age named Jayne who’s hiding her sexuality from her conservative Christian family. As the novel progresses, it becomes harder and harder for Keira to keep all the different parts of herself separate, until a violent homophobic attack at a school dance brings everything to a head.
As much as it is empowering for bisexual teens that this novel uses the word “bisexual” on the first page, I can’t give the rest of it a pass, because there are many aspects that need major work. The writing contains far too much telling and not enough showing and the plotting is very uneven: not much at all happens for the first 150 pages, and then a ton of action is squeezed into the last 30 pages. The first few chapters in particular are basically the same material recycled with no forward movement. It’s especially unfortunate that homophobia fuels what is really the only significant plot point.
Characterization, however, is fairly well done—Markotic excels especially at the sensitive and complex depiction of Keira’s younger sister who uses a wheelchair, as well as Keira’s unique mix of shyness and quirkiness. Keira’s parents also feel like fleshed out, complex human beings, people who had kids before they were financially or emotionally ready, who are struggling to support their family with jobs that aren’t fulfilling, and whose relationship is faltering. I also appreciated how Sita wasn’t slut-shamed from Keira’s or the narrative’s point of view.
Keira’s voice feels mostly authentic, almost as if the novel were meant to be a diary; teen readers may see a reflection of their own voices in how Keira narrates, even if the narrative’s vocabulary and the way in which the same thoughts and events are told again and again become repetitive (at least for this adult reader). Unfortunately this repetitiveness doesn’t feel especially deliberate or thoughtfully used, suggesting that the novel merely needs editing. At times the book kind of feels like what an amateur teen writer would actually write about high school, which might be appealing to some teens but also makes it feel inauthentic to what high school life is actually like.
There’s also some cringe-worthy slang used that feels very much like an adult trying to sound hip and cool to teens (if 32-year-old me can hear it, it must be pretty bad). For example, the chapters end with these little statements from Keira about what just happened categorized as “HET-GIRL ALERT” and “LESBO ALERT.” Has anyone ever said “het-girl” in this slangy way, ever? I have no idea why Markotić didn’t just say “straight girl” since what follows this bizarre marker always refers to the traditional images and stereotypes of the “straight girl.”
There is definite potential in this novel, which is maybe why it makes it all the more disappointing that it’s such a drag to read. Rough Patch feels like a rough draft that is many revisions away from being a great book. The interesting, intricate characters are mostly there, and the bones of a plot are present, but the execution could do with a total re-write.
I’d say this book could be suitable for teen readers who like character-driven novels and bisexual teens looking for fictional peers, although the attack at the end may be triggering for teens who’ve experienced similar homophobic incidents. I don’t think many adults who enjoy YA will like this particular one. Not too long ago I would have said well at least we have one YA book about a bisexual teen, but the truth is there are other, fantastic bisexual YA books like Long Red Hair by Meags Fitzgerald, Adaptation by Malinda Lo, and Empress of the World by Sara Ryan. This recent list on Autostraddle of new and upcoming YA books with queer girl characters promises a ton of bi content, so go forth and find quality YA about bi girls this spring and summer and report back to me on which ones are the best.
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