[Book Review] An Unstill Life by Kate Larkindale is About a Lot More than Just LGBT Rights
Livvie Quinn has problems just like any other teenager; she doesn’t always get along with her mother, friends become fake and sexuality is taboo. However, the way she handles these problems is as unique as the paintings she creates in her sacred safe house of art class. After dealing with her sister’s 10 year cancer-free streak coming to an end, an emotionally abusive mother at home, and her best friends not being as supportive as they should, Livvie unexpectedly turns to Bianca, a fellow art student and the school’s most controversial misfit. Bianca is strong-willed, confident and open about everything; Livvie is suppressed, unsure and breaking emotionally at the seams. Despite their differences, both girls find themselves having feelings for each other that is beyond their previous experience, and Livvie finds a comfort in Bianca that is absent at home. Though once the relationship between the two is discovered, things at school change dramatically as the girls face bullying, hazing and possible expulsion for attending a formal dance as a couple. As her sister’s cancer continues to worsen, Livvie is faced with choices that deliberately put her in the middle of life and death, and soon the fate of her sister rests in her hands, unbeknownst to Bianca and her distraught mother. With little strength to carry on with her own life, “Livvie must decide how far she’s willing to go for the people she loves” (Quoted from official book synopsis).
The best books are the ones that surprise you. Not necessarily through plot, or character development, or even through controversial themes, but by simply being the book you’d never expect yourself to pick up and read, yet once you do, you enjoy every minute of it. An Unstill Life by Kate Larkindale is one of those books. Exclusively an eBook published in January 2014, Unstill is labeled as a member of the LGBT genre. However, it is so much more than just an advocate for young love and LGBT rights. The story of an artistically gifted teenage girl struggling with her home and school life is nothing new, but Larkindale’s approach to the subject matter is refreshing and contemporary. As you can imagine, the LGBT genre gets somewhat of a bad reputation depending on who you talk to, supposedly because of the ‘controversial’ themes and plot lines. In reality though, LGBT fiction has just enough of a right to be displayed with all other ‘non-LGBT’ novels, so for the purpose of reviewing and really highlighting the best of this novel, I’d like to classify it as YA or Young Adult fiction novel, simply because any fan of realistic YA should read this book, as well as members of the LGBT community interested in a good story highlighting real issues in everyday society.
Now, from the point of view of someone who is a member of the young ‘high school-aged’ audience this book is based on, I’d really like to applaud Kate Larkindale for her portrayal of high school. For the first time, in a long time, I felt like I was actually reading a realistic and well-thought out representation of a modern, American high school. Classes are boring, kids are angsty and sometimes mean-spirited, the cafeteria is a black hole of vulnerability, and the principal is homophobic to the point of insanity. It may sound terrible, but that’s the way it is. This book doesn’t take place too much in school and has a good balance between settings, so as not to overwhelm the reader with tiresome descriptions of the main character being ganged up on in the locker hallway or Livvie’s friends fighting over boys in the cafeteria. Livvie does exactly what any other kid in the modern age would do when faced with her situation – she spends her time relieving stress in the art room during lunch instead of dealing with bullies and simply goes through the motions of the day just like every other student. For someone who has really lived in the modern high school experience and gone through the motions just like Livvie, it was more than refreshing for me to read a novel focusing on what is actually going on in the character’s life instead of the cliche YA high school where popular cheerleaders and jocks walk the halls as royalty and everyone has 20 minutes between classes to meet with their friends. So as advice to future and current YA authors – if you’re writing a novel about high school, and it takes place mostly in the school, you’ve probably created an utterly wrong and false portrayal of American high school. Because school is boring, and therefore when written about properly is, well, boring.
The book is short at only 224 pages but is written well with a tight, fast-paced plot that remains on the forefront of the reader’s mind. Chances are once you pick this book up you won’t be able to put it down, as it’s such a quick and wonderful read that there really is no need to. The relationships are complex, but well-paced, and considering the fact that Livvie’s sister is literally dying of cancer, it was nice to know that the novel would not draw out the storyline too much to essentially prolong the impending doom of the character. After watching your fair share of cancer-themed movies and probably reading a few books featuring it too, let me tell you that this is nowhere near your average ‘cancer’ novel. Unlike most novels with a similar plot, the cancer situation is only a backdrop to highlight the intense relationship and bond Livvie shares with her sister. As Livvie begins to finally find herself in the wake of her sister’s trauma, her sister still continues to think only of Livvie’s happiness and well being, a selflessness Livvie has never found in any other loved one of hers until she meets Bianca.
Probably one of the most striking moments of the novel is when a certain source becomes aware of Livvie and Bianca’s relationship, and after telling their secret of course, leaves the whole school and administration in an uproar. Is the outrage of the principal realistic? Would she really threaten to expel these girls if they come to a formal dance as a couple? Absolutely. LGBT rights are still taboo in high school, not necessarily among the students, but among faculty and administration this scenario can be more easily found in the real world than we’d like to admit, so I was happy to see Larkindale’s comfort with tackling a situation like this.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book. It was the perfect length to read on the go and has completely changed my opinion of eBooks, since I’ve no proved to myself that I can indeed finish and enjoy an actual novel that isn’t physical paper sitting in my lap.