My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Initial reaction: I think a lot of people are going to be fooled by the cover of this particular novel and think that this is a light fluffy story about a teen who finds love. The cover is a bit of false advertising to be honest – and I don’t know if I’d say the title of the novel fits it all that well either. This is a rather rough story – and the only novel that I can think of off the top of my head to compare it to is “Push” by Sapphire (only I would argue “Push” is far more tragic and with much heavier contexts, even then it’s a hard line to draw because they’re really not that similar – I’ll have to think of other novels to compare before I write the full review). It’s frank about the sexual relationships, the neglect, and the falling in and out of relationships of the child turned teen protagonist. For all intents and purposes, the protagonist has a damaged mindset and she’s not easy to follow in this work. But the constructive thing about this novel is that it shows Anna moving through relationships and trying to build a life for herself despite her circumstances.
Full review: I’m a bit torn about my reaction to “Uses for Boys”, because for all intents and purposes, I saw what it was going for from early on in the story, and I appreciated the collective story for what it was offering, but I feel there are a lot of things that are problematic with it. Before I get into that, I want to share a personal story with you guys about my reading experiences with a book that was somewhat similar to this one, but I can neither remember the title or the author of the work. It’s been too many years, too many books – and I wish I could remember it, because it would be easier than trying to link books that aren’t really similar to it.
I was 13 years old when I picked up the aforementioned book, so technically it was written for an age group that was older than me – 15+ (though why it was in a middle school library, I’m not really sure – it might’ve had to do with the reading level). The story was about a 12 year old POC girl living with her five brothers and sisters in the projects. She was the second oldest, had an older brother who was in a gang – her mother was a single woman strung out on drugs. So basically she was the person looking after her other brothers and sisters, though the older brother would protect his siblings if they would ever get into trouble with local hecklers. She was into a lot of graffiti art, and often used art to paint pictures of the things she was going through in her life. That meant good events as well as bad.
Said girl was also involved in a sexual relationship with one of her peers – not much older than her, which might raise some eyebrows as far as what’s acceptable for teen/YA literature of today. (It was published in the mid to late 90s as far as I know, I don’t remember much else about it but the content. Whether it was specifically marketed to teens, I have no idea, but I remember I liked the cover and it did have something of a cover that would appeal to teens.) I remember at the time that I wasn’t expecting the book to go as far as it did with the portrayal of the sexual relationship – and the language was rather blunt – using “tits” for breasts and “prick” for penis. I remember one of the librarians raised a fit about the book saying that it shouldn’t have been shelved in the library after I returned the book, but the other librarian surprised her by turning to me and asking me what I thought of the book since I’d read it. I usually took my lunch breaks in the library to read at that time, so they were already used to me picking books off the the shelves at random and reading them, but I think I was the only one who actually pulled that particular book off the shelf – it’d never been checked out.
At the time, I think I answered something like “I liked it, but I was kind of uncomfortable with it. I think the girl turned out all right in the end and I’m glad she was able to succeed where she did after all she went through.” Even thinking about it now – the things that made me uncomfortable like the portrayal of the language and the depicted sex – I also knew that this was a girl who was going through a very real ordeal and had to realize what about her situation was wrong, and the book had a clear arc of her getting out of those situations. If my mom knew I read that book, she’d probably have blown a gasket in her brain, but I remember at the time, I knew what it was actually saying and the impact it was going for. It wasn’t glorifying the sex, it wasn’t glorifying the young girl’s situation, but rather providing an eye to it that many people wouldn’t necessarily talk about. That some people are afraid to talk about because of what it might imply, but at the same time – there are people who go through these very real situations and their stories should be told, if even to give an eye to them and say – this crap happens on a regular basis and no one talks about what reactions are prompted with it and how to deal with them.
So I guess that leads me into this review about how far is too far when it comes to the portrayal of such situations in YA literature. “Uses for Boys” has some graphic sex scenes and depictions of sexual imagery featuring an underage protagonist who suffers from neglect and depression – and the narrative style reflects the level of the girl’s mental state. It’s a very quick read, very much event-to-event accounts, and it doesn’t necessarily have as much character intimacy as I would’ve liked to see. Yet, I understood what it was going for. I’ve personally read stronger examples of YA literature that individually (and collectively) tackled these thematics, with stronger character eyes and more potent messages to send about the topics it discusses, including slut shaming, child neglect, pregnancy, abortion, etc. But somehow, I don’t know – this book did get to me in a profound way, with not just it’s overarching tone, but depicting the relationship between Anna and her mother as well as what the boys in her life symbolically represented (even if we don’t really get to put the finger on the pulse of any of them). I think because it felt like a genuine account, even if it was sparse in its respective detail. Like a girl who didn’t know what to do with these feelings or felt inadequate so much that she had to drop her studies, or felt uncertain in the spectrum of her life of what was truth and what was in the lies that she told herself and what others would tell her.
I personally thought the depiction of sex in this was too much and I wouldn’t personally recommend it for a young teen, but I think the book is one that should be taken in its own discretion, and read for what conversations it can promote for what it offers. I’d liken it to books like “Boy Toy” by Barry Lyga and “Living Dead Girl” by Elizabeth Scott. Maybe even Ellen Hopkins’ books (which Hopkins actually blurbed this book from the cover of my ARC). It’s certainly has more heart than books out there that are clearly “message” books, but at the same time, even with how raw it can be at times in its respective narrative, there’s a significant disconnect, and I think if it had more of a distinct connection, this could’ve been a stronger book than what it was.
The cover will probably fool a lot of people into thinking this is a lighthearted story of coming of age and Anna’s journey to finding love when really it’s a lot more raw and dark than that. And Anna is very much not a likable protagonist – she’s very flawed, but there’s context to those flaws, and I think to really see them, you have to be able to see through the filter that Anna has. I thought about the title of the book in relation to the content as well – “Uses for Boys”. Anna doesn’t have a stable male figure in her life, and a lot of the impressions she has of men are complicated by the figures she sees in her mother’s relationships as well as her own. But ultimately it’s a story where she has to come into her own sense of place, and while I wouldn’t say it brings a clear cut happy ending or coming to terms for Anna, it’s a starting point.
Overall score: 3/5
Note: I received this book as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher St. Martin’s Press.