Book Review: Gena/Finn, Hannah Moskowitz & Kat Helgeson (2016)

June 20th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to throw the book across the room.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

I’m telling you this, Evie, because stories change in memory and in the retelling, and because you write and rewrite them until they’re what you want them to be, but this is one story I want you to remember the way it happened. I want you to remember the people we are now, the times I was there for you and the times I let you down. I want you to love me weak like I loved you crazy, and when we’re both on top again we’ll remember that we did it.

the truth is
your heart is stronger than you think it is
the truth is
loving someone isn’t a period
it’s a semicolon
and the choice you make is what comes on the other side
maybe it’s a picket fence and a subaru and 2.5 kids
maybe it’s a fantasy world that lives in your computer
maybe it’s a guild
maybe it’s a fandom
maybe it’s the last thing you ever expected

Gena/Finn is the story of two young women who might never have met, if not for their shared love of a cheesy cop drama called Up Below (whose emotionally tortured, pathologically codependent male leads are highly evocative of Sam and Dean Winchester). They meet online and strike up a tentative friendship via email, IM, texts, and comments left on one another’s fan blogs. A once-in-a-lifetime bargain allows them to meet IRL, at the annual Up Below con in Chicago – and a surreal chance encounter draws them even closer. With Gena struggling in college and Finn questioning her long-time relationship with high school sweetheart Charlie, the girls turn to each other for solace and support. And then tragedy strikes and things really go sideways.

I’ll be honest: for the first dozen or so pages, I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy this book. It’s what I like to call a “crafty” book (filed under “crafty book is crafty”), artsy and told in an unconventional way, through a series of blog posts and comments; emails, IMs, and text messages; bulletins and reports; and even the odd post-it note and governmental doc. This wasn’t the problem, though; I usually read more traditional novels and thus welcome the occasional creative deviation. Rather, it was the fandom that got me. While I can relate on a general level, I just couldn’t bring myself to care about Up Below. Since the story is kind of Up Below-heavy at the beginning, I worried. But as Gena and Finn’s relationship evolved and took center stage, the issue became moot. Sure, I skimmed the episode recaps (and inevitable arguments over who’s hotter, Jake or Tyler) later on, but these are few and far between.

** Caution: Spoilers ahead! **

Mostly I loved the story, but things get kind of weird in part three (I did the “are you fucking kidding me” eyeroll at the Big Plot Twist), and I’m still not quite sure how I feel about the ending. The story is wonderfully nerdy and feels true to life, sometimes painfully so; Gena and Finn’s initial awkwardness is something to which I can definitely relate, and then some. I loved their scenes together, but also looked forward to seeing them with others. (Each “chapter” focuses on one or two characters, e.g. “Gena”; “Finn/Charlie”; “Gena/Zack.”)

Thanks to some spoilery Goodreads reviews, I knew beforehand that Gena and Finn don’t end up together; Finn decides to stay with (a newly attentive) Charlie, and Gena strikes up a friendship with a boy in her support group (though I interpreted it as strictly platonic). Had I not had several months’ worth of advance warning, I probably would have been more pissed off and disappointed than I was. But you know what? Even though I’m not sold on Finn/Charlie, I’m okay with Finn and Gena being “just” friends.

A lot of people felt like this was a bait and switch, where the authors tease us with the prospect of two bi girls and then throw them together with guys in the end. And I can definitely see this, especially with Finn and Charlie. Initially Finn’s a little ambivalent about their relationship; she loves the guy, but the prospect of marriage – which he’s floating – scares her. And Charlie? He’s kind of a tool. She moves out to California to be with the guy, doesn’t have a job or friends there, and when she finally finds one in Gena, he’s immediately threatened. He whines and teases and acts passive-aggressive and hands out ultimatums. It’s only after Charlie thinks he might lose Finn that he begins to take an interest in her hobbies. I don’t know why they’re together, other than that they have been since high school. (Been there, done that.)

Yet part three Charlie is a goddamn dreamboat, deserving of his own Ryan Gosling-type meme: kind, compassionate, understanding, and flexible. He does a complete 180 which does justify their continued relationship – but defies belief. Like, the tragedy that was the turning point wasn’t his to claim; Charlie was several degrees removed from it all. So, yeah. I really wanted Finn to dump his ass, except part one-two Charlie seems to have been abducted and replaced with a perfectly crafted manbot.

Either way, I didn’t feel like this invalidated Gena and Finn’s relationship, or their feelings for each other – which are messy, complicated, and ambiguous (like feelings sometimes are!). I think it’s pretty obvious that Gena, at least, is bisexual: her feelings for Finn don’t cause any sort of personal upheaval or self-examination. It’s almost as though she’s been here before, and in her emails with Zack, we get a hint that she has: when she tells him about Finn, he asks if she’s still crushing on girls. The last time Gena saw Zack, she was nine years old.

As far as we know with Finn, though, this is the first time she’s found herself attracted to a girl. On her part, there is some confusion as to whether this is platonic love or romantic love, but her argument with Charlie sealed the deal for me. When he asked if Finn was attracted to Gena, she declined to answer the question. I read both women as bisexual, with Gena confident in her sexuality and Finn a little more unsure and questioning.

And while I thought they were adorable together, I don’t think Gena was in the right mental space to be in a relationship with anyone by story’s end – let alone a shiny, new one with a partner who’s maybe a little confused and jealous and insecure, to boot.

That said, I think you could make a strong case for both readings of the text. You might like this story, you might hate it, but ambivalence seems to be the most popular reaction, for whatever reason.

** End spoilers **

On another note, Moskowitz and Helgeson do an awesome job of depicting a fandom (fictional so you can easily cut and paste your own on top), in all its beauty and ugliness: it was the thing that brought Gena and Finn together, but in it we also see a blurring of lines between fiction and reality; a prioritization of the former over the latter; and downright narcissism as some fans behave as though the actors are their personal action figures. (Usually I frown on gendered slurs, but in this case I found Finn’s use of the c-word was appropriately inappropriate. I snorted, I cringed, I shrugged my shoulders.)

(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: Even though Finn stays with Charlie (and Gena makes a guy friend in her support group who may or may not be boyfriend material), I read both women as bisexual. See my review for more.

Additionally, Gena (who is Jewish) is a former child star who has been all but abandoned by her “showbiz parents.” As a kid, she suffered from hallucinations. Her then-undiagnosed illness eventually got her fired from her gig on the sitcom Man of the House when she was nine – after which, her parents deposited her in a boarding school and started traveling the world with (presumably) her money. She’s been seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication since then. When she enters college, Gena has trouble getting the campus pharmacy to fill her prescriptions, and it’s implied that she unwillingly goes off her meds because she can’t reach her parents for help. She scores a cameo on her favorite show, Up Below, but while she’s on set, some wiring catches fire and three people die, including her friend Zach. She suffers PTSD, is briefly hospitalized, and then joins a support group.

Animal-friendly elements: Gena’s aunt and uncle have seven dogs, which made me smile. (I had seven rescue dogs for a hot second; it was about a year and a half between the time I adopted dogs six and seven, Mags and Finnick, and dogs one and four, Ralphie and Kaylee, passed away.)

 

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