At the beginning of this year, this debut novel was on everyone’s TBR list and they weren’t wrong. Steven Salvatore’s book is a precious gem that will hopefully pave the way for novels with genderqueer protagonists.
If you are not familiar with the term genderqueer, let me explain it really quickly for you. With this word we’re referring to a person who doesn’t fit into the gender binary, who might consider themselves totally out of it or as a combination of male and female genders. The pronouns that are most often used, besides the binary she/her and he/him, are they/them and ze/zir.
Now, the story. I am going to use pronouns interchangeably, which is what Carey does based on their daily energy. We follow Carey, a genderqueer teenager who is facing bullying and misgendering at school and is dealing with their grandmothers’ Alzheimer’s at the same time. Carey’s granny is the person who introduced him to music and to singing, to his dream of becoming a diva like Mariah Carey. When Carey discovers her school’s putting on her favourite musical: WICKED and she would like to audition for the role of Elphaba, which is traditionally played by a cis woman. But when Carey’s cast as the lead, they find out that more people than expected have no qualms about showing off their bigotry. It will be up to Carey and their friends to stand up for themselves.
This novel is, as I said, a gem. It manages to stay light-hearted, fun and lovable even in the darkest moments, which the author does not shy away from. Carey and his friends face homophobia, transphobia and misgendering, which is understandably too triggering for some people to read about. Carey is a wonderful, albeit frustrating, protagonist. They want to become a diva, but their gender identity and the emotional baggage they carry mean that they still have a few things to work through. The depiction of mental health issues, including self-harm and suicidal thoughts, is treated as the serious topic it is and Carey values the moments they spend in therapy, with a therapist who actually supports them.
Moreover, I know we all want happy and homophobia-free novels to get us through these trying times, but this does not mean stories like Carey’s should not be told and celebrated. It is a hard story to read because it’s 2021 and we’re tired of non-sensical bigotry.
I loved how music played a huge part in the novel. Despite being annoyed at myself for not having a clue when it came to Mariah’s discography, it was incredibly endearing seeing Carey’s connection to her music and what music means to so many people. Carey’s and Cris’s conversations about it were fresh and interesting, and I never would have gotten tired of hearing them bond over artists.
This brings me to another element that I both loved and hated. Carey and Cris were incredibly cute together and fit seamlessly, but communication issues got in the way. Now, I hate when this happens because communicating, to this day and age is not that hard. If you do not know how to say hard things to the person who’s your significant other, send them a message. It is a bit more impersonal, but your SO will likely understand your struggles. I also understand that “Can’t Take That Away” deals with teenagers, and not young adults or adults, which hopefully have developed those much needed skills.
This novel provided us with so many great characters as well: Cris, Phoebe, Blanca, Joey and Monroe and even Carey’s English teacher, Mr. Kelly ( who reminded me a bit of Glee’s Mr Shue but less creepy). Cris was great, and I will not tolerate slander, which is why I was quite irriatated at Carey’s friends treatment of him. Joey and Monroe were the perfect sisterly duo, and I loved how Carey and Monroe were eventually able to talk through their issues and understanding each other better. As someone on Goodreads mentioned, despite the main characters being white, the only two POC are side characters who do a lot of the labour of Carey and their friends. This is something I did not notice, but it is vital to hear what reviewers of color found in the story. ( this is the review I read https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3780533576?book_show_action=true&from_review_page=1) I recommend you read this post from a reviewer of color instead of listening to me rant about it.
The discourses revolving around school curricula and professors were easily spot on. Professors make such a difference in kids’ education, and that is not to be underestimated. It is why it is so important that competent, empathetic teachers are hired and that students feel comfortable being themselves in the classroom and outside of it. The lack of queer literature and discussions in academia (starting from high school or earlier) is not something we should be tolerating anymore, because it is blatant erasure. Curricula, especially in the US, are a highly political matter, and it’s honestly ridiculous to me that learning the truth about history, literature and so on is even a debatable issue. However, the US is not the only state that needs a good revamp. Teachers like Carey’s Mr. Kelly constantly go out of their way to be the best educators possible, while trying to shift academia’s consciousness on certain topics. It’s a labour of love that is underpaid and undervalued.
Love pours from my lips, flooding the auditorium and illuminating every dark corner of the theater. No longer caged, I’m sprouting wings and defying gravity.
What I liked: the fast pace was enjoyable, I found myself finishing it in just a few hours and the impact of its message didn’t lessen. The role of music and of musical theatre. I have been a fan of Taylor Swift for ten years now, so I know how Carey feels when talking about Mariah and her music. There is something special about people who have fallen in love with an artist’s music and never gave up on them. Additionally, WICKED is my favourite musical as well, since I saw it live at the West End back in 2017 on a school’s trip. I loved Cris and how he put himself out there over and over again, how he understood his errors and tried to fix them, but at the same time did not allow Carey to walk all over him in the name of love. It would have been toxic af.
What I did not like: to avoid writing off a romantic interest completely, authors can only rely on communication issues to create drama, but I AM TIRED of idiots not talking.