Title: The Difference Between You and Me
Author: Madeleine George
Other Reviews for This Author: None
I read this book purely on recommendation and its status as an LGBTQ novel. That's not to say I wouldn't have picked it up otherwise at some point in time - it has a lot of concepts that I love to find as a reader - but I truly had no knowledge of this book's existence until my friend Emma of Booking Through 365 let me know that I had to had to read this novel. When she tells me something's good, I take notice. The Difference Between You and Me totally proves this reliance on Emma, as it provided me with a nuanced reading experience that made me think - a really interesting thing with all of the plot-focused novels I've been reading as of late.
Jesse is an activist. She writes political manifestos that reflect every single one of her aching beliefs about life, the world, and politics. She plasters them along the walls of her high school whenever she can. Her plans to post them during a mandatory pep rally lead her to being caught in a precarious position in the girls' bathroom. Not only does she awkwardly get discovered in a stall - only because she needed a place to hide out before the rally began - but she comes face to face with Emily, the girl that she kisses in the public library every Tuesday. Jesse cares for Emily beyond reason, yet their relationship cannot be acknowledged in public. Emily acts as though Jesse doesn't exist.
To Emily, Jesse is just a weird girl that she should not like. Jesse wears fisherman's boots everywhere. Jesse's hair is cut so short that many people mistake her for a guy. There's nothing wrong with someone's fashion choices or sexual orientation, as Emily knows, but still. Jesse? Emily had no idea that there would be a type of chemistry with this girl. She looks forward to their feverish make-out sessions in the public library's handicapped bathroom. Despite her reaction to Jesse, Emily can't go out with her. Emily's dating a perfectly lovely guy that she's been with forever. It would just be too scandalous to break up a coupling that people thought worked well - a coupling that people thought was meant to last forever - just because of her reaction to Jesse.
Secrets eventually self-destruct, and it isn't long before the differences between Jesse and Emily undermine the physical connection they've fostered with each other. Jesse is getting more and more involved in a program to take down SmartMart, a shark store that's planning on moving into her community. Jesse knows the social destruction that places like SmartMart caused in communities, and she aims to stop it with the help of a very outspoken outcast (much like herself) named Esther. What Jesse doesn't know is that Emily has approached NorthStar, the company that owns SmartMart, to fund their fall dance and gotten an internship at the company as well. Two girls, two conflicting selves, and one torrid affair that could make or break everything they believe in. The Difference Between You and Me is the type of novel that truly questions how far a connection will take a couple when forces threaten to tear them apart.
The Difference Between You and Me thrives on the theme of differences (hence the title), and the giant personality chasm between Jesse and Emily is most likely wider than most western states (and those are the big ones, y'all). Chances are, one of the characters will annoy you - and that character will most likely not be Jesse. Jesse's portions of the novel are told through focused third-person, present tense. Despite being the most removed voice (the Emily sections and the one or two Esther sections are in first person) in terms of general style, Jesse's portions of the novel are easily the most intimate. Jesse is a girl with a mass of self-insecurities based around her mother's history of cancer and her own history of being an outcast at school. Jesse accepts her lesbianism but not her individuality. She holds onto Emily like she's a life raft. There's so much desire and need in Jesse's life for someone that understands her, and Emily's hot kisses are the closest thing she can find to understanding anymore. Despite this underlying need, Jesse is such a strong heroine. She's the type of girl that you want to see conquer the word. Her character arc is stunning in The Difference Between You and Me, as she is the most receptive character to the issues going on around her. She sees herself in various situations and realizes that her personality and dependence don't always work well. To see someone like Jesse - outwardly tough but inwardly dependent - become more independent is always a treat, and George expertly shows how Jesse starts to learn how to utilize her voice effectively. She is always vocal about her beliefs throughout the novel, but its through her heart-breaking journey with Emily and Esther that she truly sees what it means to be vocal about your beliefs versus just making them known.
Then comes Emily. Emily, oh Emily. How I wanted to cover your mouth with duck tape. You are such a well-drawn character. I know many people like you in real life. You are bubbly and always ready to say things in just the right, politically-correct way in order to make people realize that you care. This is exactly why you frustrate me. You are a character foil to Jesse, and because of that you are the one that doesn't change. You are the dangerous type of character that refuses to learn from the world around them; you are content to just go on with things because they are working out for you and will give you future success. I love that George uses you as a way to show the issues with someone being unable to understand the world around them. The frustration you cause is with good purpose - without it, it would be hard to see exactly why the entire plot surrounding Jesse and Esther's protest is important. You, instead, give it a clear purpose. You show that there will always be people that will refuse to truly understand that appearances are deceiving and could spell more harm than good. I may not have liked you, but you were a darn good character in your construction. If only I didn't hate you for your attitude and how you treated Jesse - oh, and how you never really felt bad about cheating on your boyfriend. Who was actually nice to Jesse and understood her reasons for battling SmartMart.
What was perhaps the best part of the story that I wanted more of was Esther and her point-of-view. Esther's point of view is shared sparingly in first person present tense. Much like Emily's point of view, actually, but we don't come to hate Esther like we do Emily. Both characters have a strong viewpoint that they refuse to let go of and end up influencing Jesse towards a refinement of her own ideals, but in Esther's case the viewpoint is one of a broader knowledge of the world. Esther is troubled by her mother's death of cancer some years before and her father's hoarding that developed from the depression the death caused. Esther ends up using her activism as a way to get out of her house and do something to help other people because she cannot help herself. In the space of two or three chapters in her point of view - and these are very short chapters, mind you - Esther is immediately given depth as a character. We see her admiration for Joan of Arc and the roots of her activism, and we also see that she is a girl that focuses for a reason. I wanted more of the book from her perspective, yet was amazed at how much I garnered from those few passages alone. Other than Esther, I just really loved all of the side characters. Some of them fall into tropes such as the Bitter High School Principal/Vice Principal or the Quirky Hippie, but they all have a surprising something about them that makes them stand out. Esther knows an aged activist couple that has become like a set of grandparents to her and impresses her with their dedication to a weekly peace vigil they hold outside of the town hall. There are also characters like Jesse's parents - aged activists themselves who are eternally amusing, supportive of their daughter, and have their own definable quirks. Jesse's mother also has to deal with cancer, making for a great source of conflict within the family that deepens their relationships quite a bit.
The nature of George's narration is a strange marriage of these third and first person points of view. One would imagine that the separation of views would be jarring, but the novel reads as completely seamless. The transitions between the voices run smoothly. There's also something to be said for how it ties into the theme of the novel - again, the very glaring differences between the two girls and how their stories are told. George has a way of creating two very organic voices from two very different writing styles, and she really understands how to allow the characters' voices to shine through in the text. That kind of writing really grabs me as a reader. There's nothing better than thoughtful prose that connects to the overall idea of the work, and George really takes that to a new level with The Difference Between You and Me. Everything - the structure, the tone, the description - shifts between the points of view. I just can't beyond how well the craft of writing is shown in this book. The pacing of the novel is fabulous, and, on top of it all, George gives her readers a really great story about activism and how to go about it (and how not to go about it). The only real issue with the writing is that, because of the strong voice, Emily is a little hard to take due to her selective ignorance.
There's nothing better than a well-crafted novel that makes you think. The Difference Between You and Me is truly an effective take on two vastly different lesbian teenagers coming into themselves via social activism and anarchy. There's so much to chew on in regards to this novel. Further more, the writing is exquisite and the story is not a simple coming-out story. Really, this is one of the best LGBTQ novels that I've read in a long time. I can't recommend it enough.
Cover: I love the simplicity of the cover. The green pops, the shoes are a strong indicator of the girls' personalities, and it's subtle.
Rating: 5.0 Stars
Copy: Received from author for review (Thank you so much, Madeleine!!)