Friday, February 26, 2016

Review: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz

Title: Not Otherwise Specified
Author: Hannah Moskowitz
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release date: March 3rd 2015
Pages: 425
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: Bought
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Etta is tired of dealing with all of the labels and categories that seem so important to everyone else in her small Nebraska hometown.

Everywhere she turns, someone feels she's too fringe for the fringe. Not gay enough for the Dykes, her ex-clique, thanks to a recent relationship with a boy; not tiny and white enough for ballet, her first passion; and not sick enough to look anorexic (partially thanks to recovery). Etta doesn’t fit anywhere— until she meets Bianca, the straight, white, Christian, and seriously sick girl in Etta’s therapy group. Both girls are auditioning for Brentwood, a prestigious New York theater academy that is so not Nebraska. Bianca seems like Etta’s salvation, but how can Etta be saved by a girl who needs saving herself?
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I've loved every Hannah Moskowitz book I've read, but I think this one might be my new favorite. Even though it's nowhere close to the saddest or funniest book I've read, Etta's voice immersed me in the story and made me feel everything so intensely. I read this book on a flight, and I kept getting stares from the guy next to me because I would laugh out loud and randomly start crying while reading. Hannah Moskowitz's books, and this one in particular, feel very personal to me and always elicit a lot of emotions because they're such important and powerful stories.

I am so happy to finally read a book with a bisexual main character - isn't it sad that, out of all of the books I've read, Not Otherwise Specified is the first and only one with a main character who calls herself bisexual!? The way the novel demonstrates the struggles of bisexual people, of not being accepted by the straight or the gay community, is so, so important. This book gets all of the feminist points for the ways it explores gender and sexuality; it's so deep within feminism that it questions dominant feminist ideas from within (if that makes any sense), complexifying issues of gender and sexuality in ways that I loved. Etta has a very nuanced perception of these issues (as well as her race), which makes for a very honest and realistic portrayal: for example, when Bianca struggles with reconciling her brother's homosexuality with her religion, Etta steps up to defend her from those who are calling her homophobic. She's a lot more open-minded about closed-mindedness than I am, which makes for a very nuanced discussion and portrayal of these issues.

In addition with struggling to be accepted because of her bisexuality, Etta is also recovering from an eating disorder. I really loved reading about someone who is actually recovering: I've read tons of eating disorder books, but they always end when the character makes the decision to get better, without actually exploring what recovery is like and showing the ups and downs that can happen along the way. The portrayal of Etta's recovery is honest and real, and I also loved reading about Bianca in this context: the dynamics between two girls at different stages of their eating orders were fascinating. 

Then there's the element of dance and musical theatre. I can't judge how realistic this part is - all my knowledge of ballet school and all of that comes from other YA books, and in those books it always seems harder and more competitive to get to the point where Etta is, so I don't know how realistic it is for her to be getting by the way she is. But I didn't really care because I loved this part of the novel, too. Etta's relationship with ballet is complex, but her passion shines through. Her decision at the end is not what I expected, but I loved it.

But none of these elements are really the main focus of the novel; Not Otherwise Specified is just about Etta, and Etta refuses to be defined by any one of these things. Etta's incredible voice is what carries this whole novel. She is such a real person that she just jumps off the page, and I'm convinced Etta exists in the real world somewhere. Hannah Moskowitz's signature stream-of-consciousness writing lets you think and live along with Etta. She makes terrible decisions sometimes, but they make sense when you're inside her head. Her humor always shines through, and I just identified with her voice so much. 

The secondary characters are great, too. I especially loved Etta's relationships with Bianca and Rachel. Based on the back cover, I had assumed this would be more of a romance between Etta and Bianca, but it's more of a complex friendship than anything romantic. The feelings Etta has for Bianca and Rachel are complicated and explored in depth. I also loved James, Mason, and the rest of the cast, but Bianca and Rachel were the ones who intrigued me the most, asides from Etta.

The ending made me so happy I cried. I can't really explain it and it wasn't what I was expecting, but it fits so perfectly with the rest of the novel. I don't even know why, but it was so good that it had me crying for a while after I had finished the novel, for no specific reason other than that this book felt very personal to me and is such a powerfully moving story. If you've liked Hannah Moskowitz's previous books, you'll definitely love Not Otherwise Specified, and if you haven't, you should definitely give her books a try. Her books are always so personal to me and so moving that recommending them to others feels like giving away a piece of myself, but her books are so important that they need to be read.


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