Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy
Balzer + Bray, May 2017
Reviewed from hardcover
I’ve been itching to shout about Ramona Blue far and wide since I read a galley back in March. I was planning to skim through a few parts in my hardcover to prep for this post, but I couldn’t make myself stop reading–Ramona grasped me yet again and refused to let go, even a second time around. It’s a book that’s simultaneously fierce and soft; funny and heart-wrenching, thoughtful and real.
Ramona “Blue” Leroux feels like she’s outgrowing her small-town life in Eulogy, Mississippi. Ever since Hurricane Katrina hit when she was five, she’s lived with her dad and older sister Hattie in a trailer as they’ve struggled to make ends meet. While Ramona loves their home, she doesn’t love that pregnant Hattie’s slacker baby-daddy has moved in with them. making a small space even smaller. Plus, for a six-foot, blue-haired lesbian, it’s both a literally and figuratively stifling existence. When her childhood friend Freddie movies back to Eulogy for their senior year of high school, Ramona’s world opens up ever-so-slightly. As they fall back into their friendship with ease, Freddie falls for Ramona and, to both their surprise, Ramona falls for him right back.
Now, this plot (or, really, the originally publisher plot description) caused a fair amount of divisive uproar on Goodreads, which can be summed up (albeit tritely) by this exchange:
Scotia: “Shockingly, bisexuals throw lesbian sexuality under the bus yet again in the name of sexual fluidity ~~ Is anyone still surprised?”
Emeline: “Shockingly, gay people throw a fit yet again over the very existence of bisexuals in queer literature. Is anyone surprised?”
The concern about lesbophobic plotlines isn’t unreasonable (it’s a concern Ramona herself expresses to her mother: “it’s not like I’m kissing girls just because the right boy hasn’t come along to turn me straight” ). But upon close consideration of the book, it’s clear that Julie Murphy’s own voices novel brings an unparalleled level of care and detail to a potentially tricky plot.
Ramona spends over half the book identifying as a lesbian. She’s only ever been attracted to women, and she’s been out in her small town for ages. Her best friends are siblings Simon and Ruth, who are also her only two out peers at their high school. She’s had sex with a few different partners, and she’s had a few girlfriends, including most recently a romance with summer vacationer Grace. At the beginning of the book, Ramona describes Ruth and Grace’s sexualities in black-and-white terms: Ruth is a lesbian, Grace is closeted, and that’s that. However, as Ramona opens up to the possibility of her sexuality being more complex than she realized, so too do Ruth and Grace’s identities become more nuanced.
For example, Ruth identifies as more than a lesbian:
“I guess if you really get down to it, I identify as a homoromantic demisexual.”
My forehead wrinkles into a knot. “A what?”
“Exactly,” she says. “But if I say that to people like my parents, their heads would explode. So I call myself a lesbian, and I’m okay with that.” (194-5)
(Did I get teary when I read this? Yes, yes I did).
And Grace calls Ramona out for calling her closeted:
“I’m going through something here, Ramona, and that doesn’t mean I’m hiding it. It means I’m learning, and I get to do that, don’t I?” (126)
When Ramona reflects back on her feelings before and after having sex with Freddie, she notes:
“I was so scared that by having sex with Freddie, I would lose part of myself—part of my identity. Instead, I’ve embraced another facet of myself. Life isn’t always written in the stars. Fate is mine to pen. I choose guys. I choose girls. I choose people. But most of all: I choose.” (280)
These discoveries about the intricacies of her friends’ identities coincide with her own discoveries about herself, and these layers contribute to Ramona Blue’s themes without ever feeling didactic or unnatural.
There are other ways the nuances of identity are masterfully explored. While Freddie and Ramona have many shared life experiences, they don’t have many overlapping identities. Ramona is white (and identifies herself as such on the second page), while Freddie is a “light-skinned black boy with a near ubiquitous amount of freckles and short, curly hair” (24). Freddie is middle class and is raised by his grandmother, while Ramona is poor and is raised by her father. Freddie is heterosexual, while Ramona is lesbian/bi/queer/not straight. These differences in privilege and understanding lead to a handful of difficult but superbly handled conversations between the two. When Ramona comes out to Freddie, she schools him on assuming heterosexuality is the “default.” When Freddie encourages Ramona not to become a “small-town stereotype” (77), she reminds him that to move beyond that stereotype requires economic mobility not accessible to all, including herself. After Ramona persuades Freddie to join her and her friends as they sneak into a pool on private property and they’re nearly caught, Freddie calls out Ramona for her and her friends’ white privilege. These conversations deepen, rather than fracture, their relationship. Their understandings of themselves and each other expand with each of these moments of dialog, just as our understanding of their identities deepen as we read about them.
Ramona Blue isn’t “just” a coming-out story; it’s about family and friendship and community and identity and relationships and coming of age—there’s so much more than what I’ve touched on here. It’s a thoughtful and sensitive meditation on finding oneself when you thought the searching was over. With starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus, I certainly hope this is one that the committee looks at seriously. Have you read it? What do you think?
(Side note for y’all: this book uses the phrases “super-platonic gay date” and “hetero bullshit” and also can I say again HOMOROMANTIC DEMISEXUAL and I think I punched the air while reading.)