"Raimi Carter is finally a girl, just like she always knew she was meant to be. At a new school where nobody knows she’s had gender reassignment surgery, she hopes to finally live the normal life she’s longed for, happy in her own skin.
Life is great until she discovers a dangerous bully is blackmailing head cheerleader, Clare Strickland, threatening to reveal her secret: she’s gay. As Raimi fights to free Clare from his clutches, the two girls move beyond friendship. But secrets from their pasts and their own fears of coming out tear them apart—maybe forever. Baring their souls to each other could cost them everything. For two girls trapped and desperately in love, only strength, courage, and trust in each other will help them break free and claim their future."
I want to start this off by saying I am torn in how to rate and review this book. After finishing I discovered that the author is a high school freshman, and I think writing and publishing this book is a fantastic achievement for them. I also think that the author did a good job dealing with the core issues of gender identity and sexuality, and that there is an audience that needs more titles like this.
Coming out is scary, even in accepting environments. Clare is terrified that people learn of her sexuality. So scared, in fact, that it is established that she has been sexually abused and raped (possibly for several years) by her "boyfriend" so that he doesn't out her. Once she is outed it is as if someone poured boiling water over a fire ant hill. Clare becomes the lesbian. She is ostrasized by the entire student body. Parents call the school out of fear that their children will be corrupted by her.
Here's the thing about New England - it's not perfect, but it's not a bad place to be gay. Yes, there are bigots and bullies. You do hear people use "dyke" and "fag" as insults. But as a whole this region is known for being rather progressive in certain areas compared to the rest of the company (and to our puritan roots). Connecticut was the third state to legalize same-sex marriage, with all of New England's 6 states appearing in the first 11 (Massachusetts first back in 2004 and Rhode Island beaten to 10th by Maryland by a few months), with New York keeping them company for good measure. Connecticut is also vaguely surrounded by a number of well established gay communities, including in NYC, Northampton, and Provincetown.
Yet Clare spends several years in high school letting someone rape her so she can appear straight (secondary issue, when Raimi brings up that Clare's relationship seems to have some serious consent issues everyone treats it as old news and not something to be addressed). In fact it's considered common knowledge that she's only with her boyfriend because he has some sort of blackmail over her. High school is its own personal hell for many people going through it. This goes way beyond that. Clare is a smart, well-educated, and wealthy girl with an incredibly amount of autonomy from her parents (namely, they gave her a credit card and don't pay attention to her unless they have to) - but she is unable to ever discover any resources to help her through her array of serious issues. I did go to a very progressive school, so maybe my experience is biased, but a lot of these resources are almost shoved down your throat as a student. I'm not sure how she wasn't forced into therapy because someone went and talked to a guidance counselor behind her back.
I think that the author was going for a small town/small minds for her town of Little, CT. Issues with intolerance can be greatly magnified within smaller communities. The author has written the town as a place lacking large businesses, and Raimi's mother is considered a rare and valuable asset as a Harvard graduate lawyer (the only thing that I can think of that would really make a Harvard grad in CT stand out is that they're from Harvard rather than Yale), so it seems the intent is to say "small community". But the school has a large text book store room bigger that sounds larger than some of the small town libraries I know of (and with remarkably little security), which indicates supplies for a sizable student body. Additionally the high school kegger that Raimi attends has several hundred kids in attendance. That's a big party. That is a big party for a fraternity, let alone a bunch of high school juniors and seniors. So I remain unconvinced that this is a small community.
So while living in a relatively progressive region of the country, one girl outed becomes the biggest scandal since the Lewinsky affair. Parents start calling the school demanding that she be replaced as captain of the cheerleading squad. The entire school ostracizes her, turning Clare from the most popular girl in school to a pariah. I have trouble believing that she is the first person out at her school (or in the town).
Maybe this bothers me so much because I'm from New England.
Raimi is a relatively well constructed character, and that's something we don't see often in transgender characters, particularly in YA fiction. She has a mixed home life. Her mother and brother are fantastically supportive, if perhaps oddly absent for portions of the story. Her father seems to be more characterized by his alcoholism and refusal to accept Raimi's gender than any actual character depth. However, Raimi has decent depth, and well characterizes the emotional turmoil of adolescence.
However I'm not sure I believe that she was able to receive full gender reassignment surgery as a minor, regardless of how much money her parents were willing to throw at the issue. Hormone treatments? Definitely. Possibly even some breast enhancement (though due to the hormones and the age at which she started, there is a definite amount of breast growth that would have occurred naturally). But generally there is a long path towards gender reassignment surgery, starting with a minimum of a year of therapy and living out of their gender closet. What research I've done seems to indicate that doctors are somewhat prohibited from performing vaginoplasty or phalloplasty on minors (note: if I am incorrect on this, I would like to know).
Fact checking does matter in fiction if there is any connection to the real world. In addition to what I've discussed previously, Clare and Rami go to Colorado for tattoos because supposedly there are no regulations on minors getting tattoos in that state.
From the Colorado state website's section on Body Art:
Body artists cannot perform body art procedures on a minor unless the body artist has received consent from the minor’s parent or legal guardian. Performing a body art procedure on a minor without parental consent is punishable by a fine of $250 for each offense, regardless of whether the artist or studio is located in a county with an inspection program.
Breaking Free does have some strong points, but it also has some noticeable issue. I'm not going to comment on the ending, beyond that it seems a bit overly dramatic, but there are also some really crazy things that people do. The book does a good job handling issues of adolescence, as well as abusive relationships and issues of trust.
Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.