Book Review: What I Like About Me by Jenna Guillaume

February 26, 2019

Edition: Pan Macmillan Paperback
Release Date: February 26, 2019
Pages: 256
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Source: Received as an ARC from Pan Macmillan

You know those movies where teenagers have the summer of their lives?

This summer is probably not going to be that.

Here lies Maisie Martin, dead from embarrassment, aged sixteen.

The last thing Maisie Martin thought she'd be doing this summer is entering a beauty pageant.

Not when she's spent most of her life hiding her body from everyone.

Not when her Dad is AWOL for Christmas and her best friend starts going out with the boy she's always loved.

But Maisie's got something to prove. And she's not going to let anything or anyone - including herself - hold her back.
What I Like About Me is an absolutely delightful addition to Australia’s young adult fiction shelf and one we’ll be no doubt boasting about for ages. It’s sweet, relatable, and full of heart. As our almost always scorching Summer comes to an end, there’s no better world to immerse yourself in than the one Jenna Guillaume has gifted us. 

Jenna Guillaume's debut novel is a story that will leave you feeling like better friends with yourself, in the sincerest and least pretentious way possible. It hits the nail on the head when it comes to the adolescent life of the girls who love to live vicariously through their favourite film protagonists when they experience the summers of their lifetimes, except this time a girl similar to you and I gets her own version of this coming of age tale. 

In terms of #LoveOzYA, What I Like About Me is what we’ve all been asking for. For those of you reading this review who live here, to paint you a picture of how Aussie this book is, it mentions the HSC Discovery Module, Aerogard, and eating Pavlova on Christmas Day – all in the one book! Incredible! It was the subtle nods to down under such as those and the absence of caricature Australian characters that made the book all the more comforting and satisfactory. You get to relate to what American readers take for granted when they read popular young adult fiction. From the first to the last page, I was dying to spend a day on the Central Coast, on the sand, book in hand. But through reading this debut novel, you get pretty close.

Imagine having a body that people stare at wherever you go. Pass silent judgement on. Pierce your skin and get at your soul with their cruel words. Their taunts. Even their concern, which is really just another way of saying you’re not good enough.

Readers will find a bosom buddy in protagonist Maisie. Her internal monologue sometimes feels all too real. She is kind and brave but like the rest of us, experiences her moments of doubt and insecurity. Occasionally, Maisie even allowed moments of self-loathing to turn into moments of self-sabotage. This didn’t make her unlikeable because, in her feeling so tangible, I found myself relating to Maisie in a way that doesn’t always come easily or naturally with other protagonists in young adult fiction. She didn’t feel overexaggerated or superficial because Jenna Guillaume effortlessly captures the psyche of a young woman who struggles to feel at home in her body but tries anyway, which in itself is a powerful sentiment that carries a lot of weight.

Even if slightly predictable and cheesy at parts (who am I kidding? I love cheese), What I Like About Me is the type of reading that the insecure yet hopelessly romantic 8-17-year-old me spent years begging for, and for that, eighteen-year-old Sunny is incredibly grateful. Danielle Binks makes a great point when she tweeted that this novel totally rocks when it comes to featuring diversity that is subtle and casual. It is diversity that doesn’t feel forced or like it’s being harnessed as a marketing tool. I absolutely adored that and appreciated how normalised it was to have a lesbian character or a character from a dysfunctional background feature in the story because that’s how it works IRL. 

An extension of having ‘incidental diversity’ was that the way Jenna portrayed various familial and friendship dynamics also felt legitimate and palpable. For example, through Maisie, we witnessed how downright uncomfortable family discussions (often well-meaning yet still judgemental) surrounding weight can be and how that can make dealing with self-esteem and body image feel even more isolating than it typically is. You get to hear a teenager experience anxious thoughts about their parents' relationship and feeling helpless about not knowing what’s going on. Similarly, it also looks at what it means to be in a friendship that feels off-kilter and not quite understanding how to honour years of shared experiences whilst being real about potentially growing apart from one another. All of these questions and concerns added depth to a story that is mostly fun and heart-warming, giving it a balance and authenticity that will have What I Like About Me standout from other releases in this genre.

I was and am, genuinely so thrilled that Jenna’s story (alike similar and recent hits such as ‘Dumplin’) allowed Fat girls to have their long-awaited turn in the spotlight. In certain memorable scenes, Maisie expresses how horrible bikini shopping and clothes shopping, in general, feels when you have very limited and expensive options provided to you (because the industry refuses to acknowledge you exist), whilst conversely showing how finding that rare gem of an outfit can make all the difference when it comes to feeling both glorious and powerful. Could this book be any more relatable and relevant? I think not.

The idea that wearing [a bikini] is a brave act just because you’re not a stick figure is kind of fu*ked up.
Personally, I would consider What I Like About Me to be the book equivalent of a power dress for big girls. It feels like protective armour that equips you for battle and leaves you feeling completely prepared for anything to be thrown at you because you’re invincible and you are understood. This book feels like being seen and simultaneously understood. Jenna achieves this by letting her character be vulnerable and imperfect and as a sweet touch, Maisie actively decides to spend time identifying the things she actually likes about herself. Even sweeter, in the early package I received with my review copy, a card was included that asked the same of myself. 

And I wiped my tears away, and I looked at myself. Truly looked at myself for the first time in a long time. And I counted the things I like about my body.

Other things that made this book so fabulous; it finally made me understand the appeal of the film ‘Dirty Dancing’ which I must confess to initially being unimpressed with, it also includes a majorly accurate depiction of being awkward as heck when around your crush, and it’s a super quick and attention-stealing read – I read it in a night and refused to put it down until I unwillingly turned the final page. Definitely, What I Like About Me should be read by high schoolers and applauded for its positive and necessary messages. There is nothing but goodness in this book and it deserves its own Netflix original adaptation. 

There is a really lovely romance in the story, some awesomely-executed humour, and a complex portrayal of sisterhood. But ultimately, the stories greatest romance is Maisie learning to embrace herself. You’re invested in the happiness of the protagonist in such a full-throttle way that consequentially, for a second it forces you to realise that it’s okay to be invested in your happiness and self-acceptance too. 

What I Like About Me is out in all good Australian bookstores today. Click here to find out more details about attending its free book launch in Sydney this Thursday.

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