Note: My review is based on the eARC of the book that I received via NetGalley. The final version will be published on May 2nd, 2017.
My Summary: Jordan Sun is a scholarship student at the elite fine arts school, Kensington, and she’s desperate to get a role that will prove that she’s good enough to her parents. When her audition for the fall musical flops because her vocal range and texture aren’t “feminine” enough, she resorts to desperate measures: cross-dress as a guy and audition for the elite all-male a cappella group, the Sharpshooters, for a shot at the prestigious tour that will elevate her from nobody to the cream of the crop. It’s only for three months, so it can’t go wrong, can it?
Okay, so Seven Ways We Lie was good, but Noteworthy is amazing. I’ll be up front in saying that this is in large part due to the main character of Noteworthy being a bisexual Asian American, which is lot more relatable to me than the mostly-white cast of SWWL, no offense to them.
Noteworthy has all the same things that made Seven Ways We Lie good: well-done characterization all across the board, relatable protagonist, beautiful prose, interesting premise, excellent plotting. What puts Noteworthy on a different level from Seven Ways We Lie is the way it manages to tackle just about every social issue imaginable throughout the story. Race, gender, sexuality, class, disability, religion, and body image–plus the intersections of many of these–are all addressed at some point in the narrative, usually very explicitly.
Although Kensington is pretty white overall, Jordan’s world isn’t as white. Jordan herself represents a lot of things at once: She’s not only Chinese American, she’s bi (late at figuring it out, to boot), poor (her parents are working-class and her family receives government assistance), tall (5’10”!!!) and thick-framed (not to mention tan/brown), and has a lower voice. She also has impostor syndrome that has nothing to do with her cross-dressing and everything to do with anxiety. She’s basically me, except I’m Taiwanese American, genderqueer, not quite as tall (5’7″), and can’t sing (sadly).
The other members of the Sharpshooters are a diverse bunch in ways that extend beyond race, including (warning: a few spoilers): Isaac Nakahara the Japanese American hottie, Theodore who is fat and never fat-shamed by anyone except horrible people, Trav Atwood who is Black and the musical director of the group, Jon Cox who has a learning disability, and Nihal Sehrawat who is Sikh and gay. It is through these characters that the aforementioned issues are explored.
One of the things I appreciated about the execution of the cross-dressing premise was that unlike many books with a similar premise, the author actually discusses the implications of cross-dressing-as-disguise for trans people. For Jordan, it’s a tool and a lie, for trans people, passing is a matter of trying to live their lives and be seen as their authentic selves. The situations are vastly different, which makes cross-dressing-as-disguise a kind of appropriation.
The narrative also calls into question the constant and automatic gendering of certain traits and behaviors as masculine or feminine. It points out the flaws in gender essentialism that views things as inherently male or female as well as the sexism that is tied up in it. It also undermines cisheteronormativity* by normalizing the existence of queer people, not assuming that attraction is only between boys and girls, and, of course, having a bisexual main character who expresses her attraction to two genders.
The primary reason I love this book so much is the characterizations of and dynamics between the members of the Sharpshooters. They’re so realistically portrayed and given depth and complexity. They all care about one another, but as is inevitable when you throw together eight people into a high-pressure situation, tempers explode and conflicts erupt. My favorite relationship was the friendship between Jordan and Nihal, who bond over various shared experiences.
Last, but not least, I’d like to throw garlands at the writing style of this book. Riley Redgate is a master of poetic turns of phrase, and I’m envious of how gracefully she manages to describe every little thing. Plus, there’s nothing like reading a story about singing from someone who knows what they’re talking about and can capture the impressions of sound in the written word. While I was reading, I couldn’t help but pause over certain descriptions and think, “Wow, this is breathtaking…”
*There was one instance where the author slipped up and said “boys and girls” while excluding non-binary people. However, I contacted her about the mistake, and she promptly responded and promised to fix it ASAP, before the final printing if possible, and if not, in future printings of the book. This is a good model for how authors should respond to problematic language being pointed out.
Recommendation: *throws confetti everywhere* READ THIS BOOK!