Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Book Review: Happy Families by Tanita S. Davis

First published: 8th May 2012
By: Knopf Books for Young Readers

Teenage twins Ysabel and Justin Nicholas are lucky. Ysabel's jewelry designs have already caught the eyes of the art world and Justin's intelligence and drive are sure to gain him entrance into the most prestigious of colleges. They even like their parents. But their father has a secret—one that threatens to destroy the twins' happy family and life as they know it. 

Over the course of spring break, Ysabel and Justin will be forced to come to terms with their dad's new life, but can they overcome their fears to piece together their happy family again?

My review:

Happy Families is undoubtedly an 'issue' book. I say this because, at 240 pages in length, there isn't much time for the author to delve into anything besides the issue at hand, and it feels designed to help young adults through a similar experience, rather than to offer a thrilling read. However, the former goal is an admirable one and Happy Families did make me understand the issue of transgender people much better than I did before.

Happy Families is narrated by twins Ysabel and Justin, switching back and forth between them. A common criticism about double narratives is that they aren't distinct enough from each other and although that's usually not a problem for me, I admit, in Happy Families, I forgot whether it was Justin or Ysabel narrating more than once. I don't mind that the twins are alike and react to their father in similar ways - I think that's normal and realistic. I just don't think 2 PoVs are necessary for this story and a better choice would have been to leave it as one.

At the beginning of the story, Justin and Ysabel have the kind of sitcom-perfect, aspirational dream life not seen since The Cosby Show. They're both popular, church-going over-achievers, with an extended family who dote on them. The novel then jumps to a year later and things have changed for them drastically: They're now struggling with the news that their father, Chris, wants to be Christine.

Happy Families is about the twins spending a week with their dad, as he tries to get them to accept who he is. They go to therapy sessions, meet with other transgender people on day trips, talk about their feelings. The insight into life with a transgender parent is interesting and I appreciated the window into that. But while Happy Families is an informative read, it isn't a particularly touching one. It's difficult to get emotionally invested; the lack of subplots means we don't get to know the characters beyond their reaction to the central issue. Justin and Ysabel are given a hobby each (she makes jewellery, he's a master debater), but they still didn't feel like fully fleshed out characters to me; they felt defined by their father's reveal. Making their lives before this so picture-perfect didn't help. If Happy Families had portrayed the twins with other everyday problems with school/friends/girlfriends it would have made them more relatable. Instead, it felt like coming to terms with their father's gender identity was the only problem the twins had and I'm sure that's not the case for most teens with a transgender parent. 

Still, I do think Happy Families is worth reading, especially because the list of YA books featuring transgender people is very short. The list of YA books featuring transgender people, who happen to be African-American, is even shorter. It's a quick read and many of the conversations between the characters gave me food for thought. The book treats the issue of transgender people with dignity and sensitivity. 

While I didn't feel much of a connection with the twins, I dug their parents' relationship and found the way they loved each other unconditionally, very romantic and sweet. It's also likely that the connection I didn't feel with the main characters, would be very present for a reader in the twins' position and I can see Happy Families being a great source of support to a teen in a similar situation.  

Rating: 3 stars

This book was provided to me by the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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