By Katy Goodwin-Bate
I’ve previously used my Fourth and Sycamore reviews to seek closure on varying issues pertaining to my parents, from their dubious taste in films to their disgraceful lack of regard for the purchasing of proper peanut butter. Another significant, if not equally horrifying, discovery came last year when I discovered that, contrary to what I had been led to believe, Come On Eileen was not the first dance at my parents’ wedding. Rather, this event paid such scant regard to convention that they did not even have a first dance, soundtracked by Dexy’s Midnight Runners or otherwise, and I had been tricked into cultivating a deeply held affection for this song, and, indeed, playing it for them at my own wedding, under entirely false beliefs. Honestly, there is no end to the ways in which your parents can let you down.
Most people probably won’t have such a complex history with Come On Eileen and so the opening sentence of Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit–“Come On Eileen is a terrible song at any wedding”–won’t provoke this barrage of emotion and inner conflict. Those people are lucky; they’ll be able to enjoy this delightful and charming YA novel about sexuality, religion, and identity without feeling fresh resentment towards the people who spawned them.
“You want me to do what?!”
My father, the preacher, the man with the big heart and the big voice, dragged me into the landscaped backyard and laid out the most unbelievable mess of bullshit I’ve ever heard.
He sighs and repeats himself, this time more succinctly and straight to his ridiculous point. “I want you to lie low. Don’t be so boldly out of the closet here.”
Robin Jaye Brown’s main character is Jo, who is just engaging and funny enough to be forgiven for not actually being called Georgia Peaches (another misapprehension under which I had been laboring. Jo undergoes a kind of reverse coming-out at the outset of the novel; forced to move from liberal Atlanta to reserved Rome, Georgia due to her father’s marriage, she’s also persuaded to “pass” as straight in order to preserve her new family’s reputation. As Jo says, “Rome, Georgia, is definitely where queer girls go to die.” Having to recraft her whole identity is, unsurprisingly, quite stressful, especially when her new best friend is both adorable and possibly gay.
Jo, or Joanna as she becomes in her new guise of sweet, straight, new girl, has an ulterior motive for accepting these unreasonable demands; her father’s ministry takes the form of a radio station and she desperately wants her own show, in which she aims to address pressing youth issues, like, say, sexuality. Like Dill in Jeff Zentner’s gorgeous The Serpent King, Jo demonstrates a strong sense of faith, but more than a little confusion about where she fits into it; as she says, “the whole being-gay-and-a-preacher’s-daughter thing comes with some weird mixed-messaging – Jesus Loves You. Well, maybe not you.” As a non-religious person, I’m interested in narratives like this, in part because it would presumably be quite rude to quiz real people about how they reconcile contradictions like this in their own minds. One of my favourite moments in the book came in Jo’s badass takedown of the faux-Christian, homophobic comments of her peers:
“The Bible’s only explicit reference to homosexuality is that passage in Leviticus you misquoted, and even it is sort of vague. Man shall not lie with man. Says nothing about sex or love or long-term commitment.” Or women, I think.
I grip my cafeteria tray so I don’t fling it at the unsuspecting table of sophomores who are side-eyeing my outburst. I point at Betsy. “That tattoo of a unicorn on your ankle, that’s a sin according to Leviticus.” I turn to Gemma. “As is your love of shellfish. So y’all need to quit gossiping, act like you live in the twenty-first century, and get over yourselves.”
I liked that Jo had no doubts about her faith: just serious reservations about the ways in which it’s used by others to criticise and hurt. She’s definitely joining my cadre of awesome YA heroines. In fact, Brown’s novel is replete with engaging characters, some of whom develop very pleasingly as the story progresses. While not everyone is immediately welcoming of lesbians in their midst, the ways in which Brown shows them working to understand and accept showed a particularly nice side to humans; at the heart of Georgia Peaches is the idea of a small-town community with limited experience of anything beyond their own lives, and it’s pleasing to observe them having their eyes opened.
Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit is a really warm-hearted novel. While it has important issues about teen sexuality and acceptance at its core, it’s also firmly focused on friendship and growing up; it’s clearly an LGBT+ story, but also it features plenty of characters and relationships which are universally relatable. Brown’s plotting and characterisation reminded me of some of my favourite YA novels, echoing the compassion of Becky Albertalli’s Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda as well as the loveable schmaltz of The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder. While the more intimate scenes would dissuade me from recommending it to younger teens (not, I hasten to point out, because the sex is f/f, but just because it’s sex), it’s definitely a very enjoyable and eye-opening book for older readers.