As a teenager, I didn’t like young adult fiction. Now, as an adult, I no longer remember exactly which books turned me off, but I do recall scanning book jackets in my high school library, frustrated with characters who felt very much like adults pretending at adolescence (a la the Steve Buscemi/30 Rock meme, “How do you do, fellow kids?”).
Some characters were so polemically chaste, and others were such hyper-sexual caricatures that I could never connect with their stories. These books felt patronizing to me more than anything else. Likely I stumbled across a few bad titles in a row, but the good news for YA readers today is that organizations like We Need Diverse Books have widened the plots — and characters — available to us.
Sophie Gonzales’s YA romance Perfect on Paper is one such diverse title.
Perfect on Paper (2021) does not supply content warnings, but it addresses or alludes to the following material: biphobia, internalized and external; alcohol use; recreational drug use; emotional abuse; toxic friendship; and toxic parents/divorce.
To best discuss this piece, there will be some SPOILERS about the bisexuality plotline in particular, though I’ve tried not to spoil too much. The good news is that it’s possible to talk about this one plotline without talking about the entire book — and that’s because Gonzales has created a full character in protagonist Darcy. Yes, Darcy is bi, but there’s more to her identity than sexuality. It’s simply one part of who she is, and one plotline within the larger novel.
This shouldn’t be groundbreaking but sadly some queer characters are still reduced to “one-dimensional pastiches” in media, as Jill Gutowitz wrote for TIME in early 2022.
It’s a pitfall that Perfect on Paper avoids. The main plot of the novel is that high school student Darcy runs an advice column out of locker 89, helping her classmates navigate the nuances of crushes and romance via an anonymous letter and email service.
When her classmate Alexander Brougham discovers that she’s the mastermind behind the locker, he blackmails Darcy into helping him win back his ex (a plot with echoes of the 2015 YA gay romance Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, adapted into the 2018 movie Love, Simon). All of which is to say that, while Darcy’s bisexuality is a key component of the story, it isn’t the only focus, and her character is interesting and nuanced beyond Gutowitz’s pastiches.
It isn’t the only arena in which Perfect on Paper succeeds. The novel offers a mature perspective on the use of recreational drugs and biphobia as well. If the perspectives skew too mature or too informational, the writing can feel preachy — and, for the most part, readers picking up fiction aren’t looking for a lecture. I certainly wasn’t when I was reading YA as a teen. It made me disengage, and I'm sure I'm not the only reader who’s done this.
As difficult as it can be to convey good information in fiction, Gonzales rises to the challenge: She masterfully addresses biphobia without patronizing her readers.
One way the novel does this is through the Queer and Questioning Club, often shortened to the Q & Q Club. It’s a school-run group to which Darcy and some of her friends belong, a safe space for the students to discuss sexuality. The club is introduced early in the story (and was actually founded by Darcy’s transgender older sister), and a few scenes take place during meetings.
It isn’t until the end of the novel that the Q & Q Club is used to address the biphobia plotline. Darcy, who has had crushes primarily on girls, now has a crush on a boy, and she admits to the club that she’s feeling unsettled: “‘I feel like if I’m with a guy, I won’t belong here [at the Q & Q Club] properly anymore. What if I got a boyfriend? I’d feel weird bringing him to pride events, or even telling queer people I have a boyfriend. I’d feel judged.’”
For me, the line was a gut punch.
In real life, I could be a grown-up Darcy: I may not run an advice column, but I'm a bi woman currently dating a man. I know the pressure of feeling too straight-presenting to be a “real” queer, and so do other bis, including Melissa Faliveno, who wrote the 2020 essay collection Tomboyland.
In Perfect on Paper, Gonzales uses Darcy’s fears and the educational setting of the Q & Q Club to define, acknowledge, and combat this biphobia: the scene culminates with the entire club reminding Darcy that she is, in fact, queer. She belongs. They accept her.
It’s a scene that could’ve easily skewed polemic. But because the club was introduced early in the book, it doesn’t feel forced. Instead, addressing biphobia as part of the club’s agenda feels like the logical next step. It was established as part of Darcy’s world long before it was used to provide good information — and the very important reminder that bi people are bi, no matter who they are (or aren’t) dating.
For me, it wasn’t the romance that made the book, and it wasn’t the exploration of toxic relationships (among both couples and friends), either; it was this scene addressing biphobia that really drew me in. Gonzales’s willingness to bring biphobia to the forefront — and then address it so clearly and powerfully, as though she’d read my mind and picked out my insecurities — is what made this novel memorable for me.
One day, I hope we reach a point where biphobia is obsolete. In the meantime, I’m glad we have books like Perfect on Paper to remind us that we, as bis, very much belong in queer spaces.