Review: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Girl Mans Up by M-E GirardGirl Mans Up by M-E Girard
Published by HarperTeen on September 6, 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 384
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
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four-half-stars

All Pen wants is to be the kind of girl she’s always been. So why does everyone have a problem with it? They think the way she looks and acts means she’s trying to be a boy—that she should quit trying to be something she’s not. If she dresses like a girl, and does what her folks want, it will show respect. If she takes orders and does what her friend Colby wants, it will show her loyalty. But respect and loyalty, Pen discovers, are empty words. Old-world parents, disintegrating friendships, and strong feelings for other girls drive Pen to see the truth--that in order to be who she truly wants to be, she’ll have to man up.

I’ve said before how much I love books that surprise me. Sure, it’s always a delight to read a good book, and it’s fabulous when I pick up a book that’s one hundred percent up my alley that turns out to live up to its premise, but there’s something extra special when a book I’m not sure about and taking a chance out turns out to be completely amazing. I don’t have a great reason for why I was skeptical that Girl Mans Up might not be quite right for me as a reader, other than the title rubbing me the wrong way a bit, but those suspicions have been proved completely false. Girl Mans Up made me feel a whole range of emotions from blinding rage to family, friendship and romantic feels.

Dahlia Adler said in her review on Goodreads that she “didn’t understand how badly YA needed a butch lesbian book” until she read Girl Mans Up. I’m quoting her because that’s exactly right. With all the reading I’ve done, I’ve not read a book like Girl Mans Up yet. With all of the progress being made in diverse books over the last couple of years, this reminds me how many diverse voices and narratives haven’t been touched at all. YA definitely needed this, and I’m glad that the first one (that I’ve encountered anyway) is such strong fiction.

Pen (short for Penelope but if you call her that she will kill you—okay she’ll probably just loathe you) has known since she was a kid that she liked dressing like a boy. It always just felt right. At the same time, she doesn’t have a problem being a girl. She just likes to wear more masculine clothes and scents, to have a masculine haircut. Left to her own devices, she’d be completely happy with who she is.

However, society (that fucking judgmental asshole) beats Pen down constantly, telling her that there’s something wrong with her because she doesn’t fit in the tiny box labeled “woman.” Pen, as most of us do in the face of judgment from our peers, families, and society at large, doubts herself. In some ways, she is so incredibly brave and strong in the face of that, clinging to what feels right for her, even when she’s not sure if she’s doing the right thing.

One of the things I love about this book is that Pen isn’t always brave. She’s not always heroic. She’s flawed and fucks up. She was picked on as a little kid, bullied for not being like everyone else. So when Colby showed up and took her under his wing, she decided to follow him, even though he’s a bully and a user. Early in Girl Mans Up, you’ll see Pen standing by (and even helping) Colby bully or use people. She knows it’s wrong, but getting through life is so much easier with Colby at her back.

You will want to punch Colby directly in his dick, preferably until he can’t walk or ever have sex again. He’s a horrible person, possibly a sociopath, although I’m not qualified to diagnose that. Girard does a really nice job setting up Pen’s relationship with Colby in a believable way. Sure, he’s an ass 95% of the time, but there are moments when he truly does help Pen out, and you can see how she got where she is now. Girl Mans Up made me feel mega rage feelings while also still being an enjoyable read, which is really impressive. I do think View Spoiler ».

Girl Mans Up is all about Pen’s character arc of acceptance of herself and freeing herself from the toxic influences in her life. One of the things this book does so well is highlight toxic relationships. It’s obvious from the very beginning that Colby’s friendship is toxic, but so too is her relationship with her parents. Though her parents are present and involved, they constantly try to force both Pen and her brother Johnny to be people they aren’t. That right there is one of the definitions of a toxic relationship. People can love you and still be horrible for you. Those two relationships form really nice counterpoints, with Colby being understanding of her identity but not giving a shit and her parents caring but not accepting who she is.

In contrast, Pen’s brother Johnny completely loves and accepts Pen. He’s totally just understood her and gone with it, supported her, ever since they were young. He’s almost ten years older, so he’s a composite brother/parent/friend. I love too that, even though he does love her fiercely, they do have fights and misunderstandings. The relationship just feels so very real.

Along the way, Pen makes her first female friend, Olivia. It’s clunky at first, but very sweet to watch the two of them evolve from antagonists of a sort to real friends. Olivia’s really classy and going through a lot. I don’t want to get into her story arc since it’s more plot-based, but I think that’s all handled so well, and her ship is super cute, despite being entirely in the background.

Pen, of course, meets a girl of her own, one of the only ones to reject Colby. Blake’s gorgeous and of unstated sexuality. She’s dated guys and she’s into Pen, and she really doesn’t give a shit what random people think about her. Blake really is irresistible; I’m a bit in love with her too. She has this amazing confidence, and I love how she takes a lead role in their relationship (totally defying stereotypes which holla!). Her confidence could have made her seem like an MPDG, except that it totally fits her and you can see where it comes from in one brief scene with her loving, open-minded parents. So yeah, cute interracial f/f ship = boss.

Really the only thing that I didn’t love about this book was the whole idea that Pen is “manning up.” I get it, and I think it’s right for who Pen is, but it’s also deeply frustrating that being strong is equated with being a man. But, hey, I’m thrilled there’s a story in YA now about a cisgirl who likes girls and likes acting a bit more like a boy (per our culture’s definitions).

Girl Mans Up was super excellent, and you should totally give it a go if you’re into emotional contemporaries or totally adorable f/f ships.

Favorite Quote:

“And sure, our older selves are always going to look back and think our younger selves were idiots—but it doesn’t mean anything.” I think I’m freaking her out with my rambling. “Say your older self ended up regretting the decision you make today, well, what does it matter? She’s not here right now. You are,” I say. “I think maybe you shouldn’t think about doing what’s right, and maybe you should just do what feels less wrong.”

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

gif young big boo orange is the new black

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