This dual-narrative #ownvoices story is a rollercoaster of emotions but ultimately of hope and recognition relating the events on the birthdays of two teens born the same day and how their lives are entangled in each other whilst their lives seem to shoot in different directions.
Told in a One Day (David Nichols) style across the afternoon and evenings of their shared birthday, we see the story develop over the years between their 13th and 18th Birthdays.
Coming of age story? Check, but with a LBTQIA twist. One of the pair, Morgan is transgender and not only is grieving for her mother but struggles with the revelation believing she will be spurned by those she craves the acceptance and love from leading to a descent into depression, self hate & body dysmorphia and eventually alcohol abuse, tormented by the fear of allowing her true self to be seen and the tender but oceanic depth of feeling towards her best friend Eric.
Equally Eric is dealing with an abusive bigoted and controlling father, his parents’ marriage disintegrating and his deep protective bond to Morgan despite their diversifying friendship groups, and indeed confusing feelings too.
It’s a contemporary YA story and set in America but the Southern small town Football setting adds a nostalgic cinematic wistfulness that makes it less contemporary as others.
Yes texting, music and Youtube are mentioned but it’s the dynamic that really matters as the teens of the town continuously play out the same American story of generations high school hopes pinned on football success for boys and for girls riding the coattails of a boyfriend’s glory whether out of town or into domestic small town drudgery and the desperation and depression that permeates such setting.
It’s a story that we have heard before, it’s films we’ve seen before, just with a transgender twist its a context that could fit in any modern post-war decade and of course gender issues existed then too but were even more closeted.
This timeless charm permeates the book but it has an enduring freshness.
There were several times that tears prickled and my heart lurched throughout this novel whilst reading. Particularly Heart breaking reading the latter part of 14th Birthday, Russo evokes the characters’ pain in us at the wistful tenderness! Furthermore the depictions of toxic self-sabotage from others prejudices and expectations leading to guilt and nihilism until things crack.
As a mother I found this book particularly heart wrenching, with both characters needing strength and acceptance for who they are not the dreams and expectations of others, I just wanted to hug them both and tell them it would be ok.
I think Birthday is an important work because of the fact it really gets into the dreams and nightmares of being transgender in a prejudiced landscape as an #ownvoices story it’s brutal, cruel and bitter at times but is at the same time a story of hope and love and Russo has made no secret of her desire for happy outcome transgender stories.
It is important to give trigger warnings of body dysmorphia, self harm, cancer, alcohol abuse, homophobic and transphobic bullying and suicide attempts but ultimately this is a tale of hope, and I hope it brings understanding to others.
Birthday by Meredith Russo is published by Usborne in the UK and Flatiron Books in the US
I received this book for review purposes through a scheme, this has not affected my opinion.