100-Character Breakdown: A novel that shines with its gay athlete and twin storylines, but falters otherwise.
Genre: Young adult, LGBTQ, diverse lit
Publisher: Jolly Fish Press (May 2016)
Never have I been more stumped on my feelings for a book than with Mia Siegert’s Jerkbait. On one hand, the two central characters are incredibly three-dimensional and well-developed. Their relationship carries the novel with its ups and downs and emotional progression. There’s also the phenomenal focus on the pressures of being a gay athlete, which Siegert handles very well. On the other hand, the book simply feels over-escalated at points. The drama peaks too high, the realism sometimes fractures, and there are problematic elements I simply can’t ignore.
In Jerkbait, twins Tristan and Robbie aren’t close, but they’ve been playing hockey together all their lives, with their parents pushing them forward. Tristan, the narrator, isn’t the biggest fan of the sport. He’d rather be acting and singing on stage, but feels like he can’t because of his high-pressure parents. Robbie—a closeted gay teen—loves hockey, but between the pressure and his secret, he’s crumbling. When Robbie attempts suicide, everything changes. Their parents force them to live in the same room so Tristan can watch over his brother. Now Tristan is battling between pursuing his own dreams and keeping his brother’s life intact.
What I Liked
It’s a fast read (partially because it’s on the short side, partially because it’s so intensely paced), a book that’s difficult to put down. The drama sucks the reader in, and I found myself desperate to know what happened next. The twins are especially well-crafted. It was fun to read about two characters so deeply invested in their worlds. Especially since I share an interest in both hockey and theater, I enjoyed catching musical references and following the hockey plays. The ups and downs of their relationship also felt realistic, especially given the pressure they were under with their parents and high school overall. I also enjoyed reading from the perspective of Tristan, the straight twin, and viewing his brother’s LGBTQ storyline from a different angle. This kind of point of view could catch the eye of readers that may not have read a book told from Robbie’s view.
Siegert also excelled in her portrayal of being a gay athlete. The novel explores the pressure from all angles, from family to friends to scouts. A lot of times goes into the pressure Robbie faces to be drafted, and this weight on his shoulders has a massive impact on his character. Then the novel weaves in his coming out story, adding depth to his emotion concerning the sport and his future. And while the twin storyline and the gay athlete storyline are strong on their own, they’re even stronger with the way Siegert merges them together.
What I Didn’t Like
Jerkbait‘s plot captured me early on, but it lost its grip toward the end. There’s a sequence that feels misplaced—it belongs in some sort of thriller novel, not this one—and this truly derailed the success of the story for me. There’s a hint of magical realism during this part of the plot, and that too felt incredibly out of place. I’m all for stylistic elements and plot twists, but only when they feel connected and part of the fabric of the story.
There’s also the problem of the character Heather, who starts as Tristan’s best friend. I’ll leave it short and say her character motivations are left almost entirely unexplored, and her actions are a mystery to the reader.
What I Had Trouble With
The book has a few elements that I could see readers finding problematic. For one, there are a lot of gay characters in the novel, which is great, but they all feel extremely polarized. There’s almost no middle ground: the gay characters are either hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine (in one instance described with borderline-offensive stereotyping). But that is the least of the novel’s problematic elements.
As someone who has been involved in suicide prevention and awareness groups, I’m hopelessly mixed on the handling of the suicide plot. Yes, it is true that some teens end up in incredibly painful situations, and it is true that people do attempt suicide multiple times. It is also true that people don’t always understand how to handle the suicide attempts of their loved ones. It’s good that Jerkbait demonstrates those truths. Yet, it is also true that this novel failed to demonstrate how to properly handle the suicide attempts of a loved one. Tristan does, at points, argue that Robbie should go to therapy. But his parents continually dismiss this idea, and even Tristan trivializes Robbie’s suicide attempts at points. And yet, the family never decides to put Robbie’s mental health first. The circumstances that must take place for Robbie to get help are ridiculous. If a novel is going to highlight teen suicide so significantly, it needs to show the proper way to handle it. At the very least, the novel could’ve included resources for dealing with suicide at the back of the book like it does information about You Can Play, an organization that supports LGBT athletes.
And, for me, there was one other significant issue. Avoiding spoilers the best I can, there is a minor sexual assault component in the book (seen “off-screen”), but it is so sparse and mishandled that I’m not quite sure I can move beyond it. Its minor inclusion is so vague that some readers might gloss over it. The bottom line: If sexual assault is going to be included in a novel, it needs to be explored in a way that doesn’t make it feel negligible or forgettable. This is an issue that shouldn’t be glossed over or minimized. With Jerkbait in particular, this portion of the book could have easily been removed and replaced with a different plot element.
So while I absolutely respect the way this book explores being a gay athlete, the flaws elsewhere damage that novel as a whole. If you can ignore the issues I described and are looking for stories about gay athletes (or a twin story), pick this up. But after a lot of reflection, these are issues I can’t ignore.
Have thoughts about this book? Let me know in the comments.