Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Michael's Black Dress by James Thibeault (YA crossdressing)

I must be honest, I am torn as to how I felt about Michael's Black Dress.

On the one hand, I love the concept, and I think James Thibeault did a wonderful job of capturing the essence of a young man with an appreciation for the look, the feel, and the fit of women's dresses. Michael is neither gay nor transgender; there is no erotic thrill in him wearing dresses; and he is not interested in wigs or makeup or anything else that would make him passably feminine. It really is all about the clothes, about the style, and about wanting to just be himself.
"My name is Michael, and I'm wearing a dress."
I also thought Thibeault did a fantastic job of capturing the angst and anxiety of a young man struggling against social expectations, knowing that he will be mocked and ridiculed for the clothes that he wears. There is an emotional back-and-forth there that is sure to feel familiar to anyone who has ever struggled with coming out about anything personally significant, although I do feel there were times when Michael's personality swayed too far into violent aggression - to the point where, by the end of the story, my own emotions swayed from empathizing with him to pitying him.

His sister, Shah, is an interesting character, but one I felt was lacking depth. She is a young woman who supports her brother - sometimes to extremes. There is no doubt she is someone you would want in your corner, but it felt like she was only there to enable him, with no discernible life outside her brother. I liked her (aside from the incessant smoking), but I would have liked to get to know her better. Bella is the other young woman in Michael's life. For most of the story, I absolutely adored her, wishing I could have found such a fun, witty, open-minded girlfriend back in my high school days. She supports Michael even when Shah has her doubts, and her quick thinking saves the day more than once. I really liked what Thibeault was doing with her, exploring her sexual past, confronting the issue of slut-shaming, and owning her sexual freedom with the idea of the tattooed tree, but I feel like the story failed her in the end, condemning her bold sexuality and forcing her to conform.

Jacob and Lionel round out the story, a one-time trio of best friends that have been reduced to just Michael and Jacob, with Lionel having drifted away. Those relationships are absolutely pivotal to the story, but they are also what left me feeling the most torn. For friends, they are not very nice to one another. In fact, they can be downright cruel and violent, and the confrontations between them in the final chapters robbed the story of whatever empathy I had remaining after Michael's violence. These are boys who slander and insult one another, who start malicious rumors to drive their own agendas, and who then act surprised and hurt when it backfires. Lionel I was, perhaps, most conflicted over, wanting to like him, and perhaps even admiring him to a large extent, but also being troubled by his duplicity.

While Michael's Black Dress had some comic-tragic elements in the first half that I thought worked very well, it dropped the comedy and got heavily tragic in the second half. Maybe I was just looking for a happy ending that does not exist in real life, or maybe I am just too far removed from that age and culture to fully appreciate the situation, but I am not entirely comfortable with how the character arcs were resolved. That said, please do not allow my negatives to overshadow what is a bold, important book. This is a well-written novel that gets inside your head and under your skin, and I fully applaud Thibeault for such a bold, direct take on crossdressing.

Oh, and that final scene? The one that mirrors the first time we saw Michael wear a dress? But which opens the door to a very different reception? Absolutely perfect.

James is an English teacher with a MA and BA in English. For years, he has been writing in anthologies and writing competitions and finally published his debut novel, Deacon's Folly, in 2016. He primarily writes Young Adult--focusing on either contemporary issues or universal issues that teenagers face.


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