If I Tell by Janet Gurtler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
MC Jasmine ("Jaz") had her fair share of issues to contend with, even before she saw her Mom's boyfriend making out with Jaz's skank-a-rific "best friend" Lacey at that party. Issues, you ask? Well, she's never really gotten over being abandoned by her Dad, who split as soon as he found out that her Mom was pregnant at seventeen. She's the only bi-racial kid in a town that is pretty backward and mean about that sort of thing. Her grandfather Joe, the one guy she could count on, died recently, and her new best friend Ashley (who is gay, btw) is pretty much too busy to hang out, what with her busy swim team schedule and all. And that new guy, Jackson? The one who transferred in from juvie? He seems nice, and he's not only utterly sa-woon-esque, he seems interested in her! But Jaz has to wonder whether he's still dealing drugs, or if there's some other reason he's so mysterioso and cryptic on those phone calls he keeps getting at the most inopportune times. So, yup, lots going on, even before the fateful kissy face event. And Jaz, perhaps in light of all of the above, is not really the greatest at handling it. Already pretty good at stonewalling her own emotions and keeping other people at arm's length, her inability to decide how to handle the secret isolates her, and makes her even more difficult to get along with. What's a girl to do? I mean, let's face it, that's a pretty tough situation no matter how much aplomb, savoir faire and maturity you can muster, and Jaz is a teenager.
Which is exactly one of the things I really like about this book. Jaz is not all wise beyond her years, emotionally capable and socially ept. She's all kinds of awkward, not terribly able to understand, let alone articulate and express her feelings. Fortunately, she has a wonderful author friend who can do that for her, so we lucky readers do get inside that mixed up, angsty head of hers, as she works things out, realizes what is and what is not her responsibiity or fault, and finds out who her friends are, and how to forgive them and herself, when they (and she) use poor judgment and bad impulse control. Which is not to say that everything is wrapped up in a pretty package at the end. Even those early crocuses peeping out of the frozen feelings tundra remain realistically vulnerable and tentative as the narrative closes. But is there anything more hopeful than those first few shoots of green in March?
Some other things I loved about this book. Girls and guitars. Just the phrase makes me happy - and the author does a great job of conveying a real guitar player's enthusiasm and gear geekiness in the discussion of brands (full disclosure alert - I own a couple of Alvarez guitars, so she had me right there!), and appropriate awestruckness at a custom Martin. The song Jaz wrote was cool, too, and added depth and a feeling for how deep her hurt and creativity ran, and how intertwined they were. This is totally Jasmine's story, but the rest of the cast is fully realized too, with believable, relatable and unique voices and vibes. This is everything a good YA book should be - character driven, and with a great conflict pushing the narrative on - should she tell, if so, who should she tell and how? There's romance, but it's not a romance. It's chock full of the aforementioned issues (spoiler alert - nobody gets cancer, otherwise, it's all in there!), and the kind of emotional epiphanies and coming to terms with the foibles and frailties of the world and one's self that sporadically, spasmodically mark the milestones of the painful process of becoming an adult.
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