Book Review: Between Perfect and Real

Ray Stoeve

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

published: 13th April 2021
spoilers? kind of


Dean Foster knows he’s a trans guy. He’s watched enough YouTube videos and done enough questioning to be sure. But everyone at his high school thinks he’s a lesbian—including his girlfriend Zoe, and his theater director, who just cast him as a “nontraditional” Romeo. He wonders if maybe it would be easier to wait until college to come out. But as he plays Romeo every day in rehearsals, Dean realizes he wants everyone to see him as he really is now––not just on the stage, but everywhere in his life. Dean knows what he needs to do. Can playing a role help Dean be his true self?

Galley provided by publisher

Between Perfect and Real is one of those books that I read and I know it’s good, I can tell that, but I just don’t enjoy reading it. That sounds harsh but all I mean is that it’s not for me. It’s a book that another reader may — and I’m sure will — love, but that reader wasn’t me.

The story follows Dean, who is grappling with the knowledge that he is trans. Being cast as Romeo in the school production as Romeo and Juliet gets him thinking though — is it really best to wait until college to come out, or does he want everyone to see him as he is now?

I want to preface the actual review by repeating that everything I have to say here is an explanation of why I didn’t enjoy this book. That doesn’t mean you won’t! In fact, please do disregard this review completely and still read it.

That being said…

I think what struck me most about this one is that I was bored by it. There isn’t really that much plot — a lot of what happens happens internally to Dean. Which is fine, if that’s your thing. But that’s not really my thing. I don’t really like books which are mostly introspective, so this one didn’t do it for me in that sense. (It was also somewhat basic, which isn’t really a complaint, because everyone needs basic coming of age stories. But given what I had been reading, etc etc…)

Then there was the way that Zoe, Dean’s girlfriend, came across. This is a hard one to explain, to be honest, because some of what she was doing or saying was gross and transphobic. But I think that the way the narrative treated her tangled this up with the fact that she’s a lesbian a bit much. Let me try explain this clearly: Zoe being a lesbian means she’s not attracted to men. Dean is a man. So I don’t think Zoe should be demonised, or framed badly, for breaking up with Dean about that. She gave their relationship a go, and came to the conclusion it couldn’t continue. That, to me, is absolutely fine. And I get that this is thorny, especially when it comes to Dean’s feelings on the matter. But Zoe was breaking up with Dean because she’s a lesbian, not because he’s trans. At times, it felt like the narrative didn’t do enough to disentangle that decision from the transphobic things Zoe was doing.

On the whole, it did feel at times like there was a very black-and-white approach taken to issues that I would have said had more nuance (of course, that could easily just be me). Towards the end, it did pick up on this nuance more, but at times it felt a little… inflexible in its views.

And then there was the background cast. There’s this one memorable (in the wrong ways) scene which happens just after Dean’s been beaten up by someone (which, also while we’re here, please be aware that happens, around 60% through I think?, because I wasn’t and that was a bit of a nasty shock), where the Black character suggests calling the police on this guy. It went like so:

Black character: Let’s call the police on this guy
non-Black character: I thought you didn’t like the police
Black character: I don’t but I can make an exception
non-Black character: well you know they wouldn’t do anything with him, he’s rich and white and cishet, they only go after LGBT and POC folks

To me — and I want to stress to me, because I know opinions may differ — that read a little like the non-Black character explaining police brutality-slash-prejudice to the Black character. So that was a bit of a …what moment.

But it wasn’t just that about them, but the fact that, while there were four (or so) background friends — two white, two not — the non-white friends appeared mostly to prop Dean up and support him, while the white friends could converse with Dean about things other than how Dean was doing and how their parents had taken their coming out. This could easily have been coincidental, mind, it’s just it seemed after a bit to have become somewhat of a pattern. It was one of those things that, once you start noticing, you can’t stop. (Although, on the whole, most conversations Dean had with his friends revolved around Dean. I’m not sure I could tell you a whole lot about the background characters really. They weren’t as fleshed out as Dean by a long way.)

So all of this contributed to me not really enjoying this book. It wasn’t bad by a long shot, and it didn’t annoy me like another book I’d read just days before, but I didn’t like reading it. I thought, for a while, that maybe I could rate it 3 stars, but in the end, I couldn’t. But, all that said, please don’t let this review put you off this book. You may find you love it.

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