Like Water by Rebecca Podos
Balzer + Bray, Oct 2017
Reviewed from ARC
It’s a rare treat to find a work of YA contemporary realism that has such a distinct sense of place and is so full of emotion. Podos’s prose has an effortless beauty, and more than anything else, the characters shine. I adored Vanni and Leigh and the ways they push against gender roles and the gender binary.
[Note: Leigh comes out to Vanni as genderqueer toward the end of the novel and there’s no mention of the new pronouns Leigh has chosen. However, the text does mention that “‘she’ […] doesn’t feel right anymore, if it ever did” (301), so I use they/them/their to refer to Leigh.]
For Like Water’s protagonist, the end of adolescence brings with it listlessness, looming health concerns, and first love. The summer after her senior year of college, Vanni’s small New Mexican hometown, El Trampero, is living up to its nickname: La Trampa. The trap. Ostensibly, Vanni is staying at home to save money working at her family’s restaurant and to be close to her father who was recently diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. But she also doesn’t have a plan for her future, and her melancholic apathy isn’t helping. At a public pool in Santa Fe, she meets Lucas, a lifeguard who also works at a newly opened waterpark. Through him, Vanni gets another part-time job as a mermaid performer, which lets her put her talent for swimming to good use and gets her away from the restaurant and Jake, her co-worker and regular hook-up. She also meets Lucas’s sibling, Leigh, for whom she develops a deep attraction. The narrative flows, dare I say, like water, propelled along by Vanni’s astute, often wry, observations and believable character interactions.
For all her uncertainty about her future, Vanni is an incredibly self-possessed character. She’s independent and confident, even when she’s pretty deep in her existential malaise. And notably, because female characters with healthy body image are always wonderful to see in YA, she’s comfortable and self-assured in her curvy body, when it comes to her own self-image and when it comes to sex.
The novel does some wonderful work interrogating expectations for women’s behavior, especially shutting down slut-shaming. Vanni knows most people in her town think of her as “not nice” because of the reputation she’s acquired for sleeping with guys. Vanni goes after what she wants, and very often that’s sex, without much in the way of emotional attachment. And, even when Vanni explains her behavior as a coping mechanism of sorts, the narrative doesn’t invalidate sex as an act of agency and empowerment.
Leigh is also “not nice.” They’re surly, quick to judge, and prone to insulting people. Vanni likes Leigh anyway and connects with them because of their abrasive personality, rather than in spite of it. Both are wonderfully, humanly flawed characters who have a hard time seeing around their own self-interest in ways that create realistic strife in their relationship.
Vanni’s realization that she’s bisexual is, refreshingly, not cause for alarm. She takes her attraction to Leigh in stride. Though she’s only dated and had sex with boys before, she recognizes other instances in her past, when reframed in light of her attraction to Leigh, that indicate her attraction has always been more fluid. With Leigh, she discovers the difference between wanting to have sex with someone and wanting to have sex with someone and build lasting emotional commitment.
Vanni takes Leigh’s disclosure that they are genderqueer in stride, too, and meets it with sensitivity and acceptance. This isn’t a huge moment that triggers any change in their relationship status. It accounts for Leigh’s apparent discomfort with their body and, perhaps, some of the frustration that causes them to lash out. Vanni gives Leigh space to make their own decisions, rather than making everything about their relationship.
Though Vanni and Leigh go through a rocky patch, this isn’t a narrative about a failed relationship, only a complicated one. They have problems that emerge realistically from the places where their individuals goals don’t match up, and they begin to work through them.
Suffice to say, I enjoyed this book from start to finish, and I thought the queer representation was excellent. There was so much about this novel that seemed fresh and feminist and honest, not only in its subject matter but in its approach, too. I loved that Like Water centers queer identities without leveraging them for narrative conflict.
And beyond the novel’s considerations of sexuality and gender identity, I appreciated aspects of it that I haven’t even begun to touch on: Vanni’s biracial white/latinx family; the relationships she forms with the other mermaid performers, most of whom are also from low-income families; the impact of Huntington’s disease on her father and Vanni’s struggle with the possibility that she may inherit it. To the best of my knowledge, all are portrayed with care.
Do you have other input or insight about this one? Please chime in!