Title: Not Otherwise Specified
Author: Hannah Moskowitz
Publisher: Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
Time taken to read: 23 hours
Goodreads synopsis: 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?
I originally gave this book 3 out of 5 stars, but I ultimately decided on 4 out of 5 mainly because of the subject matter and the representation. The main character, Etta, is a black bisexual girl with a Japanese semi-girlfriend. There is no other book out there that has that.
This author really knows how to write about eating disorders (which isn’t surprising since she had one). And I’m a good judge of that because I had one too, and maybe still do. I want to share one quote that’s about labels and diagnoses that really spoke to me:
“There are a billion things about this that are important to me and every one of them contradicts or takes away from one of the other ones. I just want this to add up in a way that makes me look more…” […] “Legitimate.”
I struggle with more mental illnesses than I can count on one hand and they all come back to the same question: are my feelings legitimate enough to be considered a “problem”? I was technically diagnosed with EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) like Etta, but I met the criteria for anorexia before I started seeing a psychiatrist, and that will always bug me. Nobody wants to be mentally ill, but you want that diagnosis, that label, so that you can start to make sense of what’s happening to you and so that you feel legitimate enough to get help, and this is something I’ve been struggling with for years. I also happen to be bisexual, like Etta, and her feelings of not being gay enough also seriously resonate with me. I’m currently dating a guy and I look very feminine, so to most people, I’m straight until proven otherwise, and it bugs me because that’s not who I am. I try to find ways to slip it into conversations, like I’ll say, “Oh, yeah, I had an ex-girlfriend once who was really into [insert conversation topic].” And people have straight up (no pun intended) told me that they think I do that because I want attention, but they’re wrong. I can see people assuming things about me that are wrong and I want to casually correct them because I’m uncomfortable with their assumptions. So basically, yeah, I picked up this book because I knew I’d really relate to the main character, and in that sense I was not disappointed.
Etta’s voice was strong and teenager-y, which is good. Her thoughts were sort of stream of consciousness-y, which is how most teenagers (and people in general) think and talk, including myself. However, a voice in a book can’t actually be like how people talk. Moskowitz’s sentences were long and rambling, which doesn’t work on the page. I had to reread several sentences to understand them because there were so many thoughts in one sentence that it was overwhelming. I also felt like some of the writing was a little cheesy and overdone. Bianca asks Etta why she doesn’t want to feel something about ballet, I don’t remember what it was exactly, and Etta says, “Because that means we exist.” I stared at that line for a while because it was incredible how little it meant while it was trying so hard to mean so much. That, to me, shows a writer who is trying too hard. Your meaningful quotes, in my opinion, should come naturally, and that line feels like the opposite of natural.
While I loved Etta, the other characters in this book fell a little flat for me, especially James and Mason. We don’t know anything about Mason other than the fact that he has a motorcycle, and because of that he seemed really flat and one-dimensional. We learn a little bit more about James, but the relationship he has with Etta that we see and the relationship that Etta talks about are totally different. It seems to me like the only thing that connects the two of them is Bianca (and maybe Mason), but Etta says that she and James are soul mates. She says, “We need each other, James and I,” but I never saw any evidence of that. I am not an expert on well-rounded secondary characters, so I don’t know exactly what the author could have done to make them better, but I can feel that they needed more work.
Another thing that I have been that is relevant to this book and this review is a Starbucks barista. It is clear to me that Moskowitz has never done more than glance at a Starbucks menu. (Fun fact: I have one hanging in my kitchen.) First of all, Bianca is poor. This is said and shown multiple times, yet Bianca calls Starbucks “her third parent.” Starbucks is not cheap. I cannot afford Starbucks prices even with an employee discount, so Bianca definitely cannot be as attached to it as she is. Second, what is a “caramel apple latte”? That does not exist. That does not even make any sense. Not even close. And third, it’s ICED coffee, not ICE coffee. That’s probably in my top five barista pet peeves, right behind asking for a drink off the “secret menu”.
The bottom line is, I’m very glad that this book exists. It isn’t perfect, but at least it was done. Broaden your horizons, try a new perspective, and give this book a chance.