Book review: Ramona Blue, by Julie Murphy

Like many of us, I’ve been eagerly anticipating Julie Murphy’s latest book, Ramona BlueI’m a huge fan of Murphy’s work, what she did for fat representation in Dumplin’, and her interest in making the world of fiction a better place. This is a book that’s received a mixed reception, and as is often the case when it comes to questions of representations, both broad sides of the debate are making sharp and important points — you’re not wrong if your assessment of Ramona Blue is different than mine, and I’m not trying to invalidate your experience if you read the book and the characters differently.

The book, set in Mississippi, revolves around the town of Eulogy and a tall, outspoken, blue-haired denizen: Ramona Blue. It explores what happened after Katrina in regions that didn’t get a lot of media coverage. It delves into what it’s like to be poor, and working multiple jobs as a high school student, and feeling like you’re never escape the trap of your poverty. These things endear the story to me, as does the depiction of Eulogy as a tourist town where the residents are trapped in terrible service jobs and the town basically dies in the winter.

It is also, at its core, a book about family. It’s about Ramona’s sometimes frustrated and tormented relationship with her sister. It’s about her desire to give her sister’s baby a better chance at life. It’s about her chosen family of people she loves deeply and wants the best for, and it’s about the ties that bind people living in small, poor communities across the US.

But this is also a book about sexuality, where is where the criticism has come in, and I’m going to spoil some things for you here because it’s the only way to fairly talk about these issues. Ramona Blue, you see, is lesbian — at the outset of the book, she’s dating a girl, talking about her attraction to girls, and exploring what it’s like to be gay in a very small town where that kind of thing is not allowed. This is a huge deal. It’s incredibly rare to find lesbians in fiction and it is super exciting to find one.

But then a childhood friend moves to town, and as she starts hanging out with Freddie, she starts to fall in love with him. That turns into a relationship, and it brings up many tangled issues.

One read on the book: Ramona is bisexual, and didn’t realise it — her relationship to her sexuality evolved as she met more people and started learning more about herself. Sexuality is highly fluid, and some people don’t realise that they’re straight, or gay, or bisexual, or queer, or asexual, or anything else until they’ve had a chance to live in the world a bit. In this instance, she’s a canonically bisexual character and this is a coming of age novel.

Another read on the book: Ramona is yet another bisexual character who’s magically cured of her lesbianism by having sex with a boy. That read reflects a very ancient and damaging trope where lesbians are abruptly turned straight by meeting ‘the right man,’ something Ramona herself acknowledges and challenges in the book. Over time, that’s sometimes been shifted into lesbians turning bi by way of meeting the right man. It is hard to find actual lesbians instead of bi girls in fiction (gay men are better represented), and it hurts when the person you thought was rock solid in the girl lovin’ camp suddenly develops a more complicated relationship with her sexuality.

So which is it? I think there are valid reasons to include Ramona Blue in either camp, regardless of Murphy’s intent, which clearly was to tell a story about a bisexual girl who thought she was lesbian. Which is not an uncommon occurrence. If the book went the other way and she was dating a boy only to discover she also liked girls, an entirely different can of worms about bisexuality would have been opened, so let’s not pretend that the book would be been ‘better’ that way, or that the backlash wouldn’t have been as robust.

Sexuality is hard and many people struggle with who they are their whole lives, let alone in their teens. We often enforce very rigid social rules on people: You’re either straight or gay (and other orientations don’t exist). That puts bisexual people in a really terrible position, because their identities are belittled, erased, or weaponised against them. The way young adults relate to their sexuality is obviously something that shifts over time, and the norms when I was in school are clearly not the same now. But I do see broad social patterns, and biphobia is a persistent problem.

Does Ramona Blue counteract or feed biphobia? Again, that depends on how you read the book and how you approach it. Maybe it broadens our understanding of the fact that sexuality shifts over time and anyone can be bisexual, that being attracted to multiple genders isn’t shameful or wrong, something to hide. Maybe it adds to the body of tropes suggesting that bi people are really straight and just settling for same-gender partners when it amuses them.

This book, like many diverse depictions, suffers from the problem of being one among a very small pool of books, and is thus burdened with outsized expectations, demands, and needs. If there were hundreds of books about bi girls coming out every year, this could be one story, and it wouldn’t be fraught and loaded with complex social issues — and it would be an authentic story that rings true to some bi kids. If there were hundreds of books about lesbians coming out every year, a story where a girl who thinks she’s lesbian but is actually bi wouldn’t be a huge deal, but rather a reflection of ordinary sexual fluidity and the reality of lived experience.

It’s also notable that Ramona herself is in a state of fluidity at the end of the book and doesn’t explicitly and clearly identify herself, nor does she say that she’s been ‘fixed’ or suggest that she’s all straightened out now. She’s still trying to figure out who she is. And that’s allowed. Maybe she really is a lesbian — who dated a guy once. Because that is allowed. Maybe she’s actually bisexual. Maybe she’s queer, or pansexual. Exploring these issues is a good thing for youth who may be wrestling with these things themselves, and Murphy approaches the subject with care, rebuking many of the harmful tropes that come along with bisexuality along the way — as for example when Ramona disabuses her mother of the belief that Ramona is straight and fixed now.

These are complicated discussions and it’s good to have them. I don’t think we should suppress discussion about sexuality in Ramona Blue or anywhere else — but I hope that the book’s critics read it, not just the blurb, or commentary like this, so they can make an informed choice for themselves…and I hope defenders do the same.

Image: nighttime pool, eltio_lewis, Flickr