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Promise Me Something by Sara Kocek

cover Promise Me SomethingDue to unfortunate zoning laws, Reyna Fey becomes the new girl at school and misses her old life dearly. While at her old school she was not part of the most popular crowd, she did have a core group of friends who’d been BFFs most their lives. Reyna makes for a relatable teen character in that she has a lot of drama going on at home and school. Her mother was killed in a car accident 7 years ago and since then her father has been raising her by himself. But, his most recent girlfriend, Lucy, is becoming a permanent fixture in their household and Reyna is not coping well with that scenario. Reyna finds Lucy particularly intolerable because a few months prior to the beginning of the story, Lucy’s reckless driving caused a wreck that severely injured, and almost killed, Reyna’s dad.

Reyna’s first days at her new school are filled mostly with quiet disappointment until a fellow student named Olive takes it upon herself to strike up a friendship with Reyna. Olive, a closeted gay teen, comes from a well-to-do family that consists of a father considering a run for public office and an alcoholic mother. Neither has much time for their loud, outspoken daughter who has trouble keeping friends and her mouth shut. Olive is fairly aggressive in her attempts to become Reyna’s friend, but often painfully blunt. Her honesty intrigues and scares Reyna who would prefer not to talk about anything serious, ever. Despite their personality differences, the two make a go of being happy outsiders together. Unfortunately, Reyna’s polite personality doesn’t help her when she reacts to the news of Olive’s best kept secret.

Olive is dealing with a traumatic home life and trying to harbor a secret she isn’t ashamed of, although she is afraid of the social consequences of people finding out. Much like Reyna, Olive is lonely and when she thinks she sees a kindred spirit, she latches on tightly. The novel is told 95% from Reyna’s perspective, but we do get a glimpse of Olive’s point-of-view in short snippets of instant messaging (IM) between her and another gay teen. The two discuss their troubled families, their depression, and their past suicidal tendencies. Through these brief messages we see a side of Olive not even Reyna gets to see.

Kocek makes a point of showing that Reyna is not a bad person, but she is weak. She caves to peer pressure. She only accepts Olive’s friendship advances because she is so desperate for friends in her new school. She has no desire to be a rebel, but doesn’t wish to be a mean girl either. However, her friendship with Olive makes it impossible to remain neutral. When the guy she has a crush on explains he has two mothers and so can’t be Reyna’s boyfriend if she has a problem with that, she’s quick to insist she doesn’t have a problem with it, but in the same breath can’t explain why she’s mad at Olive’s confession. It’s clear that before being friends with Olive, before having a boyfriend with two moms, Reyna never gave much thought to homosexuality or how she felt about it, which isn’t negatively, but she fears the “guilt by association” social stigma.

The heart of the novel is Reyna’s journey to realize that not speaking up against discrimination is the same as giving your consent for it to continue. While she quickly realizes she doesn’t care if Olive, or anyone, is gay, she doesn’t want people to think she is as well. Her greatest concern when Olive comes out to her is that people will think that because her close friend is gay she is as well. For her part, Olive takes no prisoners when it comes to calling Reyna out on her masked homophobia, telling her she’s no better than their history teacher, Mr. Murphy, who consistently insults and humiliates an openly gay boy in their class. Olive’s ever blunt and aggressive personality doesn’t win many points even when she’s right.

It’s sort of difficult to grasp how homosexuality is treated in this community. While it’s a secretive subject for Olive, it gets downplayed quite a bit. Olive is depicted in the novel as being ostracized because she’s weird and outspoken more so than for her sexual preference. Mr. Murphy is the only clear example of a homophobic adult, however, there seems to be an air of people looking the other way. Reyna doesn’t pick up on Mr. Murphy’s homophobic comments until Olive points them out.

Religion is mentioned briefly in the beginning of the novel because Reyna’s deceased mother was a devout Catholic. Reyna occasionally attends church because it makes her feel closer to her mother, but no spiritual dogma is discussed beyond “do you believe in God?” being asked between friends. Kocek’s capturing of the character is well done: the teens look and sound like normal teenagers. The novel’s ending feels a bit rushed, which serves to highlight that the core story is Reyna’s journey to understand empathy.

I would recommend the book for children ages 12-15 because sexuality and suicide are discussed, though both non-explicitly. There is a brief scene of gore regarding a successful suicide attempt of a teen as well.

Reviewer: Cetoria Tomberlin

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