Until recently, the bulk of the queer novels I’ve read have been about men. In high school, I read Alex Sánchez, Boy Meets Boy and Anne Rice’s Cry to Heaven. I was under the conceited misconception that, because I’d never heard of them, there was no good lesbian fiction out there. It’s not that I didn’t believe lesbian fiction existed, but I thought it was at best going to be a sappy romance, and at worst it would turn into some male girl’s prison fantasy. Plus, what did I need to read about fictional lesbians for? I was a real-live lesbian. I didn’t need them in my fiction (Spoilers: I was a self-important snot in high school). Damn was I wrong, and man do I wish I read more lesbian fiction in high school.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post centers around the title character, Cameron Post, and tells the story of her teenage years after her parents’ untimely death, first discovering her sexuality, her first love, and the fallout when her small town in the Montana plains discovers her secret. Danforth’s debut novel is nothing short of astounding. With sharp, subtle prose and a well-crafted plot, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is going straight to the top of my “annual re-read” list. This is why I loved this novel:
The voice of the narrator is spot on. Danforth mixes equal parts believable teen angst with insightful adult. Narrated a few years distant of the plot events, Cameron as a story teller is startlingly honest, about life in her small home town, her family, her time at God’s Promise, a Christian “pray-the-gay away” school. And herself. This insightfulness is what makes the novel a great read for the entire spectrum of “young adult” readers, including the rising tide of defunct twenty-somethings of my generation who don’t quite feel like “real” adults yet.
The not-so storybook ending lends credibility and weight to the plot. That’s not to say that the “girl-meets-girl. Girl-loses-girl. Girl-wins-girl-back” plot isn’t realistic per se as a seedling of the heteronormative trope commonly seen, but, to be frank, purely romantic plots (in the popular sense of the word) easily become boring and one-just-like-the-rest, instead of unique. The fact that Cameron never gets her reunion with her love, Coley, and more poignant still, Cameron tries to get the storybook ending where the cops come, rescue her and her classmates, and close God’s Promise forever, and she fails, more closely reflects the non-storybook world we inhabit: Someone doesn’t always come to save the day, but you push through somehow and things get better on the other side, sometimes. Staying truer to an optimistic reality makes it more obtainable to the reader, and therefore more satisfying as an ending.
Danforth’s not so historical fiction is eerily easy to juxtapose onto today. Though the movie and music references may be lost on younger readers, the tension between the socially acceptable and those who defy it is palpable, both in Danforth’s novel and in the socio-political scene today, and it is easy for the readers who feel it still today to relate to the narrator, Cameron Post. It’s here where Danforth is purposefully, blatantly, making a point, as she explains here, in an article for The Huffington Post: “But what’s absurd, what’s unthinkable, is that there are plenty of teenage readers today who can fully relate to Cam’s experiences (and much, much worse). Just change the fashion, switch mixtape to iPod, but keep the culture of hate and fear.” And for me, this is what turns Danforth’s good read, into a great novel.
As far as debut novels go, Emily Danforth’s set a high bar for herself, but I’m looking forward to what she comes out with in the future.