Cover of Jessica Verdi's And She Was. A pink cover with the title in blue block letters, overwritten with the same words in black cursive.

About the Book

Title: And She Was
Published: 2018

Cover Story: Missing Enough to Feel All Right
Drinking Buddy: She Opens Up her Eyes
Testosterone Estrogen Level: No Time to Think About What to Tell Him
Talky Talk: She’s Moving Out In All Directions
Bonus Factors: Transgender, Estranged Family
Bromance Status: Proud About It, No Doubt About It

Cover Story: Missing Enough to Feel All Right

Maybe they were trying to go for some statement, with the feminine cursive supplanting the masculine block letters. I wouldn’t have given this book a second look, but my wife recommended it.

The Deal:

Dara Baker is a recent high school graduate who dreams of becoming a professional tennis player. This isn’t easy, as she lives in a tiny town in New York state and doesn’t have the cash needed for the travel and entry fees this would entail. Her mother, Mellie, is surprisingly unsupportive, not wanting Dara to enter any major tournaments or even helping her apply for a passport to compete in Canada. Things become even more confusing when Dara finds a hidden lock box in her mother’s room, which contains her original birth certificate. Mellie always said her birth was the result of a one night stand with a guy whose last name she doesn’t know. But there’s her dad’s name: Marcus Hogan. Strangely, the mother is listed as someone named Celeste. Was Dara adopted? Was she kidnapped?

When she confronts her mother, Mellie reveals the surprising truth: Mellie is transgender. She’ll always be Dara’s mother, but she is technically her biological father as well. She transitioned when Dara was two and her biological mother died in a tragic accident.

This is obviously a lot for Dara to take in. This explains Mellie’s evasiveness about her past, why she has no contact with her family, and why she never goes swimming. Why hadn’t she been honest with Dara? Even worse, Mellie, when she was presenting as Marcus, was a professional tennis player! She stopped competing when she transitioned, but she was a real up and comer in the 90s. She could have been training her daughter all these years, instead of pretending she’d never picked up a racquet. And worse than that, Dara’s maternal grandparents are still alive! Mellie claims they didn’t support the person they knew as their son-in-law presenting as female, but Dara is resentful. What right did Mellie have to keep her away from her grandparents?

Dara hops in her car with her best buddy Sam (who is NOT her boyfriend) and they head off to try to track down her grandparents, the Pembrokes. Meanwhile, Mellie sends Dara a series of e-mails, explaining her life as a closeted transgender woman, and why she never explained things to her daughter.

Drinking Buddy: She Opens Up her Eyes

Two pints of beer cheersing

Dara, at first, seems very unsympathetic. She refuses to answer her mother’s frantic texts, and tends to think of the revelation as to how it affects her. On the other hand, Mellie’s revelation is kind of a big matzoh ball. Mellie understands that Dara needs some space and time to get her head together. And Dara still only thinks of Mellie as her mother and becomes furious when someone misgenders her.

Actually, Mellie was the character I really liked. She’s about my age, so her references to 90s culture and technology were fun. And her e-mails about living life as a closeted transgender person were heartbreaking. It’s a rare YA book that makes the reader think ‘You know, your mom really has a point here,’ but this one hit the mark.

Testosterone Estrogen Level: No Time to Think About What to Tell Him

Sam, Dara’s cute, nerdy, Indian-American best friend accompanies her on this trip. He just broke up with his girlfriend and he could use some time on the road as well. And it’s not like he wants to spend time with Dara for another reason. They’re just friends. He’s totally okay with Dara making kissy faces at the cute hipster guy they meet on the road. He’s not dying inside at all.

Also, there was Mellie’s story of how she truly loved Dara’s biological mother, Celeste, but could never transition because Celeste wasn’t a lesbian. That was some heartbreaking stuff.

Talky Talk: She’s Moving Out In All Directions

They say there are no original plots left, but this one came close. Dara reacts in typical teen fashion, seeing Mellie’s revelation mostly as how it affects herself and her tennis aspirations. But the deeper we get into Mellie’s backstory, the more Dara starts to understand why she had to do what she did, and why she had to keep Dara away from her former in-laws. And I always love a good road trip book, with the diners, motels, and the strange people one meets along the way.

Bonus Factor: Transgender

Transgender flag

Both Dara and Sam know very little about transgender issues. Sam, however, goes about educating himself, and is always there to remind Dara that what Mellie went through wasn’t a matter of choice.

Mellie’s letters were absolutely heartbreaking. Her parents were utterly unsympathetic. Even before Mellie could voice her feelings, she had a dream that Glinda from The Wizard of Oz visited her and promised to make her into a girl. When she joyfully informed her parents of this, they did not react well. Mellie was eventually kicked out of her house when her father discovered a book by RuPaul in her room. Too bad it wasn’t just a joint or something.

Mellie uses the story of RenĂ©e Richards, a real life transgender tennis player, to explain why she had to quit her own tennis career. The book does a good job of showing the history of transgender rights: Richards’ era (the 1970s), Mellie’s era (the 1990s), and the modern era.

Bonus Factor: Estranged Family

A book open with a family tree growing out of it

Mellie is evasive as to why she cut off contact with the Pembrokes, her late wife’s parents. Dara and Sam, after some false leads, track them down in South Carolina. As it turns out, they’ve been searching for Dara for years. They welcome her with hugs. They beg Dara to move in with them. Their long lost granddaughter has come home at last.

Plus, the Pembrokes are rich with a capital $. Their mansion has its own private tennis court which came with the place. They want to sponsor Dara’s tennis career. And not just in local tournaments. We’re talking Paris, baby! This is the life she’s always dreamed of! Why did Mellie keep her away from these wonderful people?

Of course, we’ve all had ‘My real family wouldn’t treat me like this!’ moments. The truth is rarely so simple. Dara finds herself walking on eggshells in a house with live-in servants and formal meals. She and Mellie were hot sauce aficionados, but the Pembrokes don’t allow that high-sodium garbage in their house. They support dubious political causes. Dara’s grandmother makes disparaging comments about a gay shop owner.

But hey, it’s all a matter of adjustment, right? Dara just needs to learn to fit in. Until she reads the final chapter in Mellie’s life story and discovers the real reason she hid her daughter away.

Bromance Status: Proud About It, No Doubt About It

Another winner in the ever-widening field of YA books about transgender people.

Literary Matchmaking

Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity

Want another book about transgender people, estranged family members, and road trips? Try Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity, by Kristin Elizabeth Clark.

Looking for Group

Or Rory Harrison’s Looking for Group.

For Today I Am a Boy

Or Kim Fu’s For Today I Am a Boy.

FSC full disclosure: I received neither money nor tennis lessons for writing this review.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.