I’ve stepped back from reviewing this year, in part because it’s such a time-consuming aspect of blogging, and in part because I want to spend the time talking about books that really resonate and that might not otherwise see much attention in the book world. My book piles are growing at a monstrous rate at home, with piles upon piles of ARCs and finished copies and purchased books beside the basket of library books I’ve been working my way through. After what felt like six months of slow reading and a disinterest in reading all together, I’ve been flying through books at a speed I haven’t in a long, long time.
In part because I’ve been reading so many fantastic books.
I spent July reading backlist titles, plowing through a huge number of reads (for me — it’s all relative so the number itself isn’t important). And now with August here, I’ve started incorporating new and forthcoming titles back into my stacks.
And I’m so glad that Cherry by Lindsey Rosin was one that I picked up sooner, rather than later.
When was the last time you picked up a YA book that was not only wildly sex positive but also fun, engaging, funny, and featured an entire case of female characters who love, support, and encourage one another? Cherry could best be described as a contemporary American Pie but with female characters, with a twist of The To-Do List.
Told in third-person, Rosin offers up a story about four girls who’ve been best friends since first grade. There are fewer than 200 days between the time the story begins and their graduation, wherein they’ll be going to far-flung places around the world; while this sort of fear of separation lingers in their world, it’s not the thrust of their story nor their friendship. They’re tight, but they aren’t controlling of one another. They’ve accepted the reality, even if it’s one that they’re not necessarily looking forward to experiencing.
The book opens at Bigg Chill, the frozen yogurt shop that the four girls spend every weekend at in person. It’s their time to catch up and hang out, talk about important and not important things. Layla, a girl who likes to make lists and accomplish the things on that list, tells the rest of the crew that she has three things in mind to accomplish before graduation: she wants to get blonde highlights, she wants to raise one of her grades in an AP class to an A, and she wants to finally have sex with her long-time boyfriend Logan. Her friends consider this and offer up some perspective on the idea of including sex on her to-do list. Isn’t it odd to have that on a list of tasks to accomplish? Shouldn’t it be more than that?
After a long discussion of this — including some wildly realistic discussions of what sex is and isn’t, what masturbation is and isn’t, and who has/has not done things — the girls decide that they’ll make a sex pact. Together, but not together-together, they’ll all have sex before graduation. There is a mix of emotions surrounding this, from fear to excitement and to the nervous feeling that one girl gets when she realizes that her friends think she’s the only non-virgin and the truth is, she’s never actually had sex.
And then we get to sex.
Cherry follows all four of the girls through the ups and downs of learning about their bodies, as well as learning about what it is they want from a sexual relationship. There is wonderful and frank discussion of masturbation — not just who is and isn’t masturbating, but how one could figure out what it is they like sexually — and there is open and honest discussion of contraception and protection.
But most importantly, and the part that made me realize this book wasn’t just a fun romp (though it is!), is that it showcases a variety of sexual interests and sexualities among the girls. We have straight sex as well as lesbian sex and it is on the page. From the moment that Emma meets Savannah, I hoped that something would spark, and I was pleased at the first kiss. Then the second. Then the fireworks. It was refreshing and truthful and powerful to see lesbian sexual interest right there on the page, presented in a way that was natural and fun and exciting, for both the girls and the readers who will pick this up.
What Rosin smartly does, in addition to highlighting sexual variety in this story, is not offer the easy ways in and out for the girls. There are ups and downs. What seems like the obvious partnerships aren’t necessarily the stories that see a happy ending. And the stories that we’ve come to see as unhappy ending tropes don’t end up that way.
Perhaps, though, the thing that made this book go from a fun, sexually empowering book, was how much it emphasizes and celebrates female friendship. Layla, Alex, Zoe, and Emma are tight, and even though there are realistic ups and downs in their relationships, they always come back to one another. There are boys (and a girl!) and there is sex, but there is not envy among them. They aren’t fighting for the same guys, and when they see a guy of interest being terrible, they tell their friends. They are not arguing over who gets what partner; they’re ensuring that the girls are finding the best, most respectful, most caring partners for them. Other girls who aren’t part of the core are rendered as important and fully-fleshed people worthy of respect as well. Though there is tension, the way that the girls describe other girls is done in a way that doesn’t demean or belittle them or call them any terribly sexist name in the book. In other words, it’s realistic that they don’t like every girl, but they don’t see the need to put that girl down using names or descriptions that belittle them.
Cherry is a fun read, and while it certainly tackles big, important topics, it’s refreshing in offering up a fun story about girls interested in and curious about sex. We regularly see this with males in YA fiction but rarely do we see it with girls. The cast of characters are all different, and they’re not all white, either — the book being set in Los Angeles feels authentic to the setting and to the demographics and to the sorts of relationships that would occur between teenagers there. The coming out scene with Emma is a small note in the story and it’s handled with care and love.
Though this will certainly see a fair amount of criticism — including this review by a male bookseller that I keep reading — it’s important to consider nuance. This is a book about girls who are curious about and who like sex. This is normal teenage girl behavior and thinking. The problem is that socially and culturally, we do not get to see or hear these stories. But we are allowed these same stories, often called “hilarious coming-of-age stories,” when they feature a male protagonist. Cherry absolutely tackles protection and pregnancy, and it absolutely talks about the fact not everyone is having sex. It also explores why and how people choose to engage in intercourse, and it discusses masturbation in a powerful, non-judgmental capacity. These are things we do not see in YA fiction.
I’ve spent a long time doing research on this and have written about it extensively on STACKED, as well as in the book The V-Word. The closest book to this one in recent memory is Julie Halpern’s The F-It List, which you may remember also caused some review controversy. While neither Halpern’s novel nor Rosin’s novel are perfect, both are doing something that needs to be considered thoughtfully and with extreme nuance. Rushing through books like this and announcing that they “don’t do” a thing or that they do a thing “too much” is denouncing the realities of female sexuality. No where does Rosin suggest all girls need to have sex and get it over. This is a story about four girls and their juggling of emotional, psychological, and physical desires in a world that constantly tells them to suppress those things while cheering on their male contemporaries for those very same things. Rosin tackles this, too, in the relationship between Layla and Logan.
Cherry is a necessary addition to the YA world, especially when it comes to fun fiction featuring a realistic female cast. Readers who love books by Amy Spalding will be delighted by this one, as will readers who are aching for a fun story ala movies like American Pie but with girls at the forefront.
It’s also a read for those eager for a solid story about friendship, girl gangs, and the power of female allies.
Cherry hits shelves August 16. Finished copy received from the publisher.