Queer YA Spotlight: Ophelia After All

I had a few hours to spare before getting ready, so I decided to flip through and read my old annotations, remembering that I’d highlighted every single one of Ophelia’s lines, because of course I did. I stopped on act 4, scene 5, Ophelia’s mad scene, and amid her convoluted meltdown, noticed the line “Lord we know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

I’d read it before, obviously, but never paid it much attention. And I’m not sure why.

Or, maybe I do know. I’ve spent most of my life telling myself I know who I am—a lifeboat of identity in the turbulent waves of growing up. A hopeless romantic, a rose gardener, a chismosa, a girl who falls for every boy who looks her way.

I forgot there are parts of me I’ve yet to discover, versions of me I’ve yet to become.

Premise: Having been “boy-crazy Ophelia” for so many years, our heroine has no idea what to do when she starts to develop one of her infamous, fluttery, heartfelt crushes on a girl. As the clock ticks down towards graduation, Ophelia feels isolated, terrified of changing the image her friends and family have of her just before they split up for college… and yet, on closer inspection, maybe Ophelia isn’t as alone in her queer identity crisis as she might have thought…

Rainbow rep: a protagonist working out her orientation, attracted to multiple genders and trying to figure out a label that fits; a queer ensemble cast including an aromantic girl, a pansexual boy, a bisexual girl, a biromantic ace boy, and a boy who normally likes girls but sometimes has sexy dreams about boys and what does that mean?? Who knows, bro?

Content considerations: mild internalised homophobia/biphobia; depictions of homophobic family members; one pretty accurate and painful appearance of a “political correctness has gone mad” dudebro.

Oh Ophelia, you’ve been on my mind since I finished this book.

Some people say the coming out/coming to terms with your identity story is dead, an old narrative pattern that ought to be relegated to the annals of history. So long as we have other narrative types popping up, I disagree: variety is always the key, and books like Ophelia After All prove that there’s still plenty of value in stories about questioning your sexuality, and explaining it to yourself and to other people. There is no one blueprint for the adolescent queer experience, and so long as we live in a heteronormative world, stories like these will continue to resonate and continue to be needed.

So, Ophelia gives us two things I think are worth celebrating: a nuanced, sweet story about self-discovery and self-love; and one of the juiciest and most delightfully convoluted teen love quadrangles I’ve come across in a while.

I have said for years that adding queerness to the mix is a surefire way to inject new life, pizzazz, and delicious complications into the trope of the YA love triangle. And oh boy, does Ophelia deliver. It’s not evident at first—on the surface, things seem pretty straight (get it?) forward, with Ophelia and her best friend Agatha watching from the sidelines as a “two boys vie for the attentions of one cool girl” triangle plays out in the corner of their friend group.

But don’t let that fool you. As Ophelia grows closer to her unexpected girl crush, Talia, and Talia’s friends get brought into the fold, inner truths are revealed, and an increasingly tangled polygon of secret romances and unrequited crushes unfolds. It sounds melodramatic as hell, and on one level, it is; yet this book never manages to feel so high-drama and silly that it switches you off. It feels grounded and believable, and the heightened emotions of the middle and final act make sense since we’re inside Ophelia’s head and the girl is having a really, really weird time.

Does the dialogue “authentically” map onto how real teenagers banter with each other? Maybe not, but it’s fun, and it’s not so outlandish that your suspension of disbelief is disrupted. Is it “realistic” that the love quadrangle gets as knotted and furled as it does? Maybe not… but then again, you know what, maybe. Romance in queer circles can involve more crossover events than the MCU. Again, the story keeps things grounded enough that you’re invited to believe in the emotional truth of it all. It’s delicious, disastrous, a beautifully tangled web, and yet it stays credible enough that it meshes with Ophelia’s down-to-earth coming out story without feeling like the series of twists and turns that it is.

I won’t give too much away, because the surprises are part of the fun, but I will say how rewarding and charming this queer ensemble cast ends up being. We get to see identities that aren’t always front and centre, with multiple bisexual characters, ace and aro characters, and the world’s coolest pansexual making up the crew. It talks directly about the erasure that supposedly “straight-passing” people and relationships face, with the asexual character directly addressing how ace people are often shrugged off as “waiting for the right person”, and with a bi girl and a pan guy worried that their romance will be easily dismissed as “not queer enough” because of their genders.

(And again, this is all woven into the construction of the love quadrangle: looking through Ophelia’s oblivious eyes, you’re fooled at first into thinking everything is very “straight”, but oho, things are not always that simple. Alongside the popcorn-worthy shenanigans, it’s a neat reminder that sexuality can and should never be assumed.)

Ophelia has to reckon with her own preconceptions about attraction, wondering if her recent crush on Talia is an outlier that should not be counted… or, indeed, if there have been girl crushes before Talia, and she just didn’t have the tools and context to notice them. It means retrospectively rebuilding the aspect of herself that seemed so set in stone, such a part of her personality that it’s practically become a meme among her family and friends: she’s “boy-crazy Ophelia”, the hopeless romantic who’s had more goofy crushes than she’s had hot dinners. Who are you, if something that fundamental seems suddenly to change?

Again, the novel captures this all very well, full of high-octane confusion and stress and fluttery feelings without feeling so dramatic that it throws you out of the story. It paints an intricate picture of sexual questioning, but, importantly, it also paints a gorgeous picture of acceptance and growth. While not everyone in the cast is so lucky—namely Talia, who has some rough scenes where she confronts her homophobic family—there are some lovely depictions of supportive parents and friends. Similar to the praise I had for The Girl From the Sea, Ophelia After All does a great job showing how coming out can feel massively high-stakes even if it turns out everyone is cool with it.

This is not a love story, but it is a story about love. Ophelia is full of it. For her friends, for her parents, and for the countless boys she’s fallen for across the years, each thoroughly felt… and her newfound love of Talia, a girl who might end up just out of reach, but who drew Ophelia into a journey of discovery that led to the most important love of all: self-love. The end result is a gorgeously sappy coming-of-age story about embracing change no matter how scary it might seem, and acknowledging that the human being is a work in progress.

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2 Comments

Filed under Alex Reads

2 responses to “Queer YA Spotlight: Ophelia After All

  1. Pingback: Queer YA Spotlight: She Gets the Girl | The Afictionado

  2. Pingback: A Cruel Angel’s Thesis Submission: June ’22 Roundup | The Afictionado

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