The Exact Opposite Of Okay by Laura Steven

The Blurb On The Back:

Izzy O’Neill.

Impoverished orphan.

Aspiring comedian.

Slut extraordinaire – apparently … 

Izzy never expected to be eighteen and internationally reviled.  But when photos involving her, a politician’s son and a garden bench emerge, the trolls set out to take her apart. 

Armed with best friend Ajita and a metric ton of nachos, she must figure out who’s behind the vicious website – while keeping her sanity intact.

Izzy is about to find out that the way the world treats girls is not okay.

It’s the Exact Opposite of Okay.  

The Review (Cut For Spoilers): 

18-year-old Izzy O’Neill was orphaned when a car crash killed her parents and now lives with her grandmother, who works as a chef in a local diner and their dachshund Dumbledore.  The wages brought in by her grandmother don’t go far and Izzy knows that she won’t be able to afford college but that’s fine as she’s set on being a comedian and screenwriter anyway, producing short films in her spare time with her best friends Ajita and Danny but in the meantime she’s only really known in her high school for the sharp and witty observations she makes in class.

All that changes though when she goes to a party – a perfectly normal party – has a bit too much to drink and ends up having sex with Vaughan, the son of a prominent state politician on a park bench before going on to separately have sex with Carson, a school basketball player she’s enjoyed a flirtation with.  Izzy doesn’t think too much of it – she’s young, she likes to drink and she likes sex – but someone else has other ideas and creates a website called Izzy O’Neill: World Class Whore where photos of her and Vaughan are uploaded, together with some nude pictures she’s taken and other examples of her sexual behaviour. At first she only has to worry about the other high school students seeing it but then it goes viral and suddenly the entire internet is judging her as a whore and the press are trailing her, pushing her for comment and judging her upbringing and worse, whoever is behind the blog keeps on posting – giving her a singular perspective on the misogyny and double standards that young women are subjected to …

Laura Steven’s debut YA contemporary novel is a feminist polemic against toxic masculinity, revenge porn and slut-shaming but while I cheered its feminism and liked the fact that Izzy is not perfect and has real money worries, Ajita exists only so Izzy can learn from making mistakes at her expense while a disabled character exists solely to bolster Izzy’s self-esteem and the men are almost all creeps while the humour just didn’t work for me.

There are a number of things that I did like about the book – for example Izzy makes a point of pointing out that she does not have a perfect body and I liked the fact that she relies on her personality and wits to attract the boys in her year and has no hang-ups about sex (which is so refreshing).  I also think it’s great to see a YA book that tackles feminism and notably the phenomena of on-line slut-shaming and revenge porn and the concept of toxic masculinity because teenagers need to know about it and the potential impact.

However while Izzy and Ajita make a big play of discussing feminism and double-standards when it comes to women and sex, I never quite believed in Izzy’s reaction to what happens to her – especially given that the person responsible for the blog is so obvious from the start. And this is a problem because there’s no real look here at what causes toxic masculinity or why it develops – Steven instead treats it superficially as happening when a boy simply can’t take no for an answer without exploring the potential causes of that (which is important given the relationship that we’ve been told exists between Izzy and that character).  In addition when Izzy’s confrontation with the culprit finally happens, there’s no real resolution to it and I didn’t believe her speech referencing UK revenge porn law in the context of the situation and no consequences and while this is in part because Steven wants it to serve as a launch pad for Izzy and her friends launching a feminist blog, it actually felt anti-climactic to me.

More seriously, for a book that’s switched on about feminism, the book is depressing when it comes to treating minority characters. Ajita’s storyline seems to exist solely so that Izzy can show how fine she is about a potential secret Ajita is keeping while simultaneously throwing her under a bus just so that Izzy can learn a lesson from it.  This is a shame because Ajita is actually a more interesting character than Izzy given the way she’s trying to come to terms with her sexuality while also living in a conservative household and I wanted to know what was happening with her younger brother (with Steven creating a potential plotline involving the brother without ever having it pay off).  Ajita’s treatment is nothing compared to Megan though – as Megan is the only disabled character in the book and yet her dialogue seems to be there purely so she can pep up Izzy when she’s feeling down about herself, which I thought was a bad way of trying to tick a diversity box.

The male characters are pretty two-dimensional for me, with the possible exception of Carson – the basketball player from a poor background who Izzy sleeps with.  A scene where she calls him on his enabling behaviour is well done and the scenes between the two maintain a believable romantic tension.  By contrast I didn’t believe in Danny at all, mainly because Izzy makes a big deal of how he’s like her brother and they did everything together and yet she has no idea what’s going on in his home life and at no point did I get much of a sense of why they actually liked each other.  The vast majority of the other men and boys in the book seem to exist to show how awful men and masculinity can be with male characters either ogling Izzy or making assumptions about her based on the stories in the blog (speaking of which, it’s noticeable how almost everyone in her High School takes the same victim-blaming approach, which I didn’t find believable at all).

Izzy makes self-mocking references to being a poor orphan (her parents having died in a car crash) and while I don’t really know what purpose this served other than to show the power dynamics in play, Steven does do well at showing how having no money can really impact on a person’s life.  The scenes where Izzy talks about how she literally can’t afford to go to college are well done, as is a scene where she shows how much the donation of a $50 competition entry fee means to her.  I also enjoyed the scenes between Izzy and her grandmother Betty, a tough broad who’s still finding it difficult to get over the loss of her daughter and son-in-law and is struggling to make ends meet.

Finally although the book makes much of Izzy’s comedic talents, I have to say that the humour really didn’t work for me.  In part that’s because humour is such a personal thing anyway but I did find the punchlines quite flat and none of the sharp dialogue was actually particularly sharp or insightful.

Ultimately I feel quite torn about the book because on the one level I want to promote YA fiction (and fiction generally) that talks about feminism but this is just so heavy-handed and unconvincing in the way it handles it while the treatment of the ethnic minority and disabled character left me uncomfortable.  As such, I won’t be reading the sequel to this although I will check out what else Steven does.

THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF OKAY was released in the United Kingdom on 8thMarch 2018.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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