Book Review: Weird Girl and What’s His Name, Meagan Brothers (2015)

October 14th, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Mulder, it’s me.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review though Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape.)

Sometimes you can’t see how the stuff you do spirals out, like octopus arms, destroying everything in its path and … okay, that’s a crappy metaphor. Octopuses don’t really destroy anything. I had to do a report on octopuses once. Octopi. Anyway, they’re actually really smart, loving animals, even if they do look like blobs. I’m no octopus. I’m more like a … like a big dumb puppy. Whipping around with its tail and its giant paws, making a mess, destroying everything without even meaning to, just trying to jump on everybody’s lap and see who loves me best.

“You’ve seen one unrequited white hetero love story, you’ve seen ’em all.”

Tallulah “Lula” Monroe and Theodore “Rory” Callahan have been best friends for as long as they can (or care to) remember. Fellow misfits at Hawthorne High – she’s the “weird girl” to his “what’s-his-name?” – they bond over their absentee fathers, mediocre mothers, shared appreciation for the male form, general bookishness, and – of course – their unadulterated love of The X-Files, which originally aired when they were just toddlers. Every Friday night at 9PM, they get together at Lula’s grandparents’ retirement condo to watch exactly one episode – their best effort to replicate the original viewing experience – and then dissect it on their shared blog, SpookyKid and BloomOrphan’s Incomplete Guide to The X-Files.

Their seemingly rock-solid friendship is upended, however, when Lula discovers that Rory’s been having an “affair” with his boss, the much-older (and still mostly-closeted) Andy Barnett. Scare quotes because Rory is seventeen and the relationship is described multiple times as statutory rape. Angry that her best friend has been keeping secrets from her (and maybe a little in love with Rory herself), Lula confronts him…only to go missing the next day.


Did Lula run away to find her long-lost mother, who abandoned her more than a decade ago – or did she meet a more sinister fate? As Rory searches for the answers, he finds that he wasn’t the only one with secrets.

Lula finally resurfaces, only to find her friendship with Rory in disrepair. Can the two friends and X-Philes find their way back to each other?

My love for this book, you guys? Might just surpass that of Fox Mulder in Kevlar.

First things first: The X-Files. As in, “Meagan Brothers had me at.” When I saw The X-Files name-dropped in the synopsis, I assumed that its role in the story would be minor, or at least smaller than I would have liked. NOT SO! While Lula and Rory (and their larger group of friends and acquaintances) do indeed bond over a wide variety of pop culture phenomenon – obscure college radio DJs, Lord of the Rings, mix tapes (cassettes, no less!), Jane Austen, Guided by Voices – The X-Files looms large. Large enough that you might even consider it a character unto itself; the third MC, even.

For Lula and Rory, The X-Files isn’t just a bonding experience. They use it as a way of relating to one another, and the world around them. Both teenagers come from “broken” homes: Rory’s dad left when he was young, and his mother is a barely-functioning alcoholic who throws him out of the house when she discovers that he’s gay. Likewise, Lula can’t remember her father or her mother: her mom Christine left Lula with her parents, Janet and Leo, when Lula was only three in order to pursue her acting career. Leo refuses to speak of his daughter, which only fuels Lula’s curiosity; all Lula has of her mother is an old bag of trinkets, forgotten at the back of her closet. She knows even less about her bio dad. (To Janet and Leo’s credit, they’re quite accepting of their granddaughter when they begin to suspect that she’s into girls.)

One of Rory’s long-running daydreams is that Fox Mulder will pull him out of class, only to reveal that he’s William: Mulder and Scully’s long-lost son. Once Lula goes missing, the dream shifts: it is Lula who is their love child, and the agents need Rory’s help finding her. Whether he’s in need of a father figure or an ace detective, it is – sadly – a fictional character who fills the void.

Confronted with Mrs. Lidell’s midterm just a few days after Lula’s disappearance, Rory experiences a massive brain fart and resorts to waxing poetic about The X-Files in his essay question (which is most definitely not properly answered with a treatise on a television show). Mrs. Lidell, who earned that girl crush and then some, lets him retake it – but returns his composition books so that he can give them to Lula when she finally returns. The essay? So freaking beautiful.

Additionally, the will-they-or-won’t-they, UST (unresolved sexual tension, duh!) in Mulder and Scully’s relationship serves as a sort of barometer for Rory and Lula’s friendship.

Whereas Rory has absolutely zero desire to see them get it on – preferring Mulder and Scully Hand-Holding to Mulder and Scully Actually Kissing – Lula is a self-described shipper. Rory views his relationship with Lula as 110% platonic, whereas Lula wonders “what if?” What if I dye my hair Scully Red and prove to him that I’m his soul mate? (Don’t worry, the story ultimately upends this trope.)

Speaking of thwarting expectations and smashing stereotypes, Brothers does a kickass job of it. The story’s synopsis is vague enough that I didn’t really know what to expect, plot-wise; and the story certainly kept me guessing. I even wondered at the genre when Lula disappeared: is this a simple coming-of-age story, or something darker? Murder mystery? Psychological thriller? A very special episode of Law & Order: SVU? Right before the narrative switch from Rory to Lula, I had the impression that this book could go just about anywhere.

Brothers also does a masterful job crafting characters and allowing them room to grow and change and develop. Metamorphose, even. Rory and Lula are like butterflies emerging – slowly, cautiously, and not always peacefully – from their cocoons after a long, exhausting pupa. Rory’s confident with his sexuality – to Lula’s occasional detriment – whereas Lula spends much of the story struggling to define herself. With so few platonic friendships under her belt (either same-sex or otherwise), Lula has trouble distinguishing between “just friends” love (scare quotes because there’s nothing “just” about a good, dependable friend) and lustful, “I wanna rip off all your clothes and maybe have your love child” love. Mrs. Lidell is too cool for school, but does that “crush” signal friendship – or something more? Just how much do Lula and Rory share in common, anyway?

And Rory! Sweet, bookish Rory. Who woulda thought he’d ever try out for the football team – and make it? And be accepted by his teammates? And then move in with star quarterback and minister’s son “Sexy” Seth Brock? And start dating the only other player bigger than him, good-natured but hardy-partying Speed Briggs? The culmination of Rory’s story line makes me feel all warm and tingly inside.

Brothers deftly brings life and nuance to characters who could easily become one-dimensional: Lula’s stepdad Walter isn’t an evil monster who kept Lula and her mother apart; in fact, he’s actually pretty rad, and way more understanding and nurturing than her bio mom ever was or could hope to be. The football players aren’t all dumb jocks and social snobs; in fact, some are kind of nerdy, just like Rory. Mrs. Lidell might seem like she’s got her shit together, but her life’s nothing like she imagined it would be when she was Lula and Rory’s age. Tracy’s dad is crazy paranoid, but he means well, is high-functioning, and is preferable to her sane but uninterested mother.

There’s so much to love about Weird Girl and What’s His Name; The X-Files is just the icing on the cake. Or the ice cream? Tofutti, to be exact.

(FYI, there is/was no such thing as a Tofutti Dreamsicle. Tofutti is a pretty rad brand of vegan ice cream – one of just a handful back in the ’90s – but it has a soy milk base, not rice, and they never manufactured their own Dreamsicle. They do however make Drumsticks, which would be consistent with the ice cream cone Scully is holding. Low-fat, but not non-fat, for the record. Despite Mulder’s apparent disgust, it’s a party in your mouth, minus all the bovine suffering. YOU’RE WELCOME.)

Definitely read this if you’re an X-Phile, but also if you love a good coming-of-age story with characters that are as complex as they are diverse; a plot defined by its nuance and compassion; and prose that’s both lyrical and cutting – and true to the narrators. Despite some early hitches – Rory tends to explain his pop culture references to death, thus sucking all the fun out of them – Weird Girl and What’s His Name is a new favorite. The truth is in here.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: YEEEES! Theodore “Rory” Callahan is gay. When the story begins, he’s having an “affair” with his much-older boss, Andy Barnett (scare quotes because Rory is seventeen and the relationship is described multiple times as statutory rape). Andy started dating men later in life; he has an ex-wife and two daughters, the oldest of which is just a few years younger than Rory. By story’s end, he and Andy have broken up, and Rory is in a healthy relationship with a guy his own own – Speed Briggs, a black football player. A plus-sized guy (“fat,” in Rory’s words), the bookish Rory was recruited to play defense in his senior year.

Rory’s best friend Lula doesn’t quite know what she is – gay, straight, or bisexual. She thinks she has a crush on Rory, but comes to realize that maybe she was confusing platonic for romantic love. During the course of the book, she kisses two women – her English teacher, Sam Ridell, and older friend/college classmate Julia “Jay” Fillmore. Jay has an ex named Carol who’s black. Eventually Lula starts dating “Sexy” Seth Brock, the school’s “requisite hot quarterback,” who’s actually rather nerdy too. (Both Rory and Lula are the Hawthorne High misfits – the titular “weird girl” and “what’s his name?” – at least at first.)

Lula’s friend Tracy, who gives her a place to crash when she runs away, is multiracial: her dad is half-white, half-Filipino, while her mom is half-black, half-Colombian.

Like many of their classmates, Rory and Lula come from “broken” or “dysfunctional” homes. Rory’s dad left when he was little, and his mom’s a barely-functioning alcoholic. When he’s accidentally outed, she kicks him out of the house. After a few weeks of living in his car, he visits the youth center at a Unitarian Church that does LGBTQ outreach. Seth’s dad is the minister and, when he learns of Rory’s living situation, the Brocks invite Rory to stay with them (Insta-brother, in Seth’s words; Seth’s older/only brother Donnie died of testicular cancer).

Lula’s mom left her with her parents, Janet and Leo, when Lula was just three years old. Though Leo refuses to talk about Christine, Lula tracks her down in Santa Fe. Their relationship remains rocky, but she bonds with her stepdad, Walter. She also learns that her bio dad, Peter, is gay – that’s why the marriage didn’t work out. Janet is Jewish, and Leo was Lutheran, but neither are practicing.

Animal-friendly elements: Not especially, though I do love the octopus quote.

 

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