I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore
Published by Thomas Dunne on October 4 2016
Genres: Young adult, Magic realism
The nitty-gritty: A luminous story filled with magic, friendship, love and diversity, beautifully written.
The idea of being called Miss or Ms. or, worse, Mrs. The thought of being grouped in when someone called out girls or ladies. The endless, echoing use of she and her, miss and ma’am. Yes, they were words. They were all just words. But each of them was wrong, and they stuck to him. Each one was a golden fire ant, and they were biting his arms and his neck and his bound-flat chest, leaving him bleeding and burning.
I loved McLemore’s first book, The Weight of Feathers, when I read it last year, and I couldn’t wait to read her next book. When the Moon Was Ours tackles different themes, but the writing is just as lush and beautiful. This is going to be a very important book in my opinion, for a couple of reasons. First, it deals with transgender characters—and there are two in this story—and it deals with the topic in a very honest yet sensitive way. And second, the story is written from a very unique perspective. In Anna-Marie McLemore’s Author’s Note at the end of the book, she describes her relationship with her transgender husband and how their friendship grew over the years and eventually led to marriage. I have to admit I was near to tears while reading these brief final pages, because they made the story that came before it resonate so beautifully.
You should know going into this book that When the Moon was Ours is magic realism, a genre that sometimes gets a bad rap. There are many magical moments that don’t have any real world explanations, and you just have to go with them. Miel and Sam are teenagers and best friends who live in a small town. Miel seemingly appeared out of nowhere one day when the town’s old water tower was torn down. She suffers from a family curse—roses grow out of a wound in her wrist, and as each one painfully makes its way to the surface, she cuts off the bloom and drowns it in the river. Sam lives next door to Miel and spends his days working in the Bonner family pumpkin patch, and in his spare time makes luminous moons of all sizes and colors and hangs them all over town. Sam was born “Samira” but has decided to try out the traditional Pakistani tradition called “bacha posh,” in which a daughter dresses up as a boy in order to help out the family.
All is well until one day, one of the Bonner sisters, a girl named Chloe who left town a year ago, comes back to rejoin her sisters, four devious girls with various shades of red hair who purportedly cast spells on unsuspecting boys and then break their hearts. Now the four girls, who have somehow found out about Sam, are threatening to reveal his secret—unless Miel agrees to give them the roses that grow from her wrist. Miel must decide which is more important—her loyalty to Sam and keeping his secret, or holding on to the one thing that makes her special.
McLemore’s prose is a veritable feast of colors and scents and tastes. She describes in intimate detail the color of the Bonner sisters’ hair, the variations of the shades of Sam’s moons, and the specific names of different species of pumpkins (Who knew there were so many varieties? I certainly didn’t!) I have to admit the constant descriptions did get to be a little too much near the end, and at one point I just wanted a straightforward story without all the descriptive passages, because I was anxious to see what was going to happen. But I do love her writing, which is a perfect style for magic realism.
The whimsical cover does a good job of describing the overall magical feeling of the story, but I was surprised to find some very dark undertones as well. Hidden underneath McLemore’s vivid prose is plenty of darkness, including the death of a parent, abandonment, bullying, heartbreak and pain. The almost eerie idea of having a rose growing out of your body was startling at first, but I grew to love the way Miel is torn between hating this foreign object that just keeps coming back no matter how many times she cuts it away, to being protective of it when the Bonner sisters want to steal her roses.
But as lovely as McLemore’s imagery is, the real beauty of this story is the author’s exploration of how people are defined by their gender and how hurtful labels can be. Sam struggles with his desire to be male, but that desire is in direct conflict with his body. Sam’s body is female: he binds his breasts and wears baggy pants, but his heart tells him he’s a he. Luckily Sam has some very supportive people in his life: Miel, his childhood friend who he has grown to love, a girl who knows all of Sam’s secrets and loves him back; and Sam’s mother, a traditional Pakistani woman who has gone along with Sam’s desire to “dress up” as a boy, but who bucks tradition in the end and lets Sam decide for himself who he is going to be.
Readers looking for diverse reads should celebrate, because it doesn’t get much better than this. Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.
About the Author:
ANNA-MARIE MCLEMORE was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and grew up in a Mexican-American family. She attended University of Southern California on a Trustee Scholarship. A Lambda Literary Fellow, she has had work featured by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, CRATE Literary Magazine’s cratelit, Camera Obscura’s Bridge the Gap Series, and The Portland Review.