Vanilla - Billy Merrell

Vanilla is the story of two boys breaking up, and the reasons that bring their relationship to a head. Told in verse, Merrell's narrative explores asexuality and gender fluidity in the lives of teens against the backdrop of a world obsessed with sex. Being brought up in a society that sees sex as the ultimate expression of love in a relationship, asexuality is currently misunderstood by many and is ultimately the reason that Vanilla and Hunter feel unable to continue dating.

The writing and language are powerful, and the range of poetic forms ensures that Vanilla never feels monotonous even as it defies any type of simplistic chronological storytelling. Merrell's background as a poet is evident and I feel that the style elevates an already complex and messy story.

Vanilla and Hunter's relationship is the core of the story, and the failing of it due to differences in expectations around sex. But there is more to it than that. A third character eventually emerges as an important part of the narrative. Angel, the leader of The Gang, begins to explore their own conceptualization of gender and eventually reveals that they are gender fluid, bringing nuanced examinations of gender expression into a novel that already complicates normative ideas of sex and sexuality.

Hunter is a jerk, I won't lie, and his treatment of Vanilla is not ideal. How he reacts to Van's revelation is pretty terrible and has led to some accusations of aphobia and reification of rape culture, but after multiple reads, I feel that these topics are suitably addressed in the course of the novel and are ultimately acknowledged as dangerous and hurtful.* I feel that the friendship that grows between Angel and Vanilla in the latter part of the text is where Merrell's narrative challenges aphobia rather than perpetuating it.

Like any literature that explores complicated, messy, and possibly triggering topics, this book won't be for everyone, but I think Merrell has managed to write a book that will start necessary and important conversations and hopefully a better understanding of how relationships can exist and be defined outside of sexual acts and arousal.

Recommended

(NOTE: This review is from an Advance Reader's Copy - Out Oct. 2017)

*While this can definitely be read as problematic, I think that it is important to distinguish between a character being aphobic and the author be aphobic. As I was reading, I saw the narrative not as perpetuating problematic notions around asexuality and gender fluidity, but rather as an attempt to show the messiness and complicated nature of existing as either of these identities in a world that values conformity and expects sex as a component of relationships.

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