Goodreads Rating: 4/5
Synopsis: Ramona was only five years old when Hurricane Katrina changed her life forever.
Since then, it’s been Ramona and her family against the world. Standing over six feet tall with unmistakable blue hair, Ramona is sure of three things: she likes girls, she’s fiercely devoted to her family, and she knows she’s destined for something bigger than the trailer she calls home in Eulogy, Mississippi. But juggling multiple jobs, her flaky mom, and her well-meaning but ineffectual dad forces her to be the adult of the family. Now, with her sister, Hattie, pregnant, responsibility weighs more heavily than ever.
The return of her childhood friend Freddie brings a welcome distraction. Ramona’s friendship with the former competitive swimmer picks up exactly where it left off, and soon he’s talked her into joining him for laps at the pool. But as Ramona falls in love with swimming, her feelings for Freddie begin to shift too, which is the last thing she expected. With her growing affection for Freddie making her question her sexual identity, Ramona begins to wonder if perhaps she likes girls and guys or if this new attraction is just a fluke. Either way, Ramona will discover that, for her, life and love are more fluid than they seem.
Julie Murphy is the author of previous bestsellers Side Effects May Vary (2014) and Dumplin’ (2015).
Ramona Blue Review
I won an ARC copy of the novel Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy in a contest held by Indigo Teen (@IndigoTeen) on Twitter. All opinions are my own.
Ramona Blue tells the story of Ramona, a blue-haired, 6-foot-tall 17-year-old girl who lives squished in a trailer with her father and sister after barely surviving Hurricane Katrina. We learn about Ramona’s relationship with her older sister Hattie, her parents, and the feeling that she is destined to spend the rest of her life in the little beach town of Eulogy, Mississippi. Ramona quietly dreams about pursuing a better future outside of her small town but it seems as though her chance will never come. With her sister becoming pregnant at a young age, Ramona quickly disregards any plans other than saving up paychecks and working as much as possible to help support the new baby. The story looks into the family narrative and how much people depend and rely on one another.
Ramona is a lesbian teenager who openly dates other girls. She is accepted by her father, sister and friends (one of which is Ruthie, the only other lesbian girl in town, and her gay older brother, Saul). Ramona’s mostly absent mother always refers to this as a “phase;” the story makes it clear that Ramona is sick of having to “prove” herself, especially to her own mother. Then Freddie, an old friend from Ramona’s childhood, comes back to town and they become fast friends again. They bond over the struggles of long distance relationships, their love for swimming and old childhood memories. As each of their romances falls to pieces (outside circumstances, not because of their friendship), Ramona and Freddie become closer. They eventually begin a romance that is tentative and careful. Ramona is confused and Freddie is careful to not push or overstep any of her boundaries.
Ramona Blue adds to the voice and struggle of bisexual individuals who first identified as either gay or lesbian before they ever identified themselves as bisexual. This narrative is still valid, important, and still needs representation. Ramona struggles with the fear that by identifying as bisexual, she will be undermining her feelings and attraction towards women, which she already knows is not a phase.
The book shows this internal conflict when Ramona is challenged by her friend Ruthie and her mother; it highlights the urgency the world instigates onto people to choose a side. Murphy’s narrative constantly reinforces that this pressure is ultimately harmful in the process of self-discovery; this pressure and the need to fit in are unnecessary. This is not a “curing lesbians” story. Ramona does not become straight nor does she stop being attracted to women at any point.
The story reads as a person’s exploration of their sexuality and identity; the larger message is that people don’t have to fit into a mold or label themselves. Julie Murphy continuously explores this theme not only with the main character Ramona, but also with her school friend Ruthie, and Ramona’s crush Grace. In fact, Ramona herself spends the majority of the story questioning Grace’s struggles in understanding her sexuality at a young age and even pressures her into “coming out.” This makes for an interesting parallel and arc in the story, where ultimately Ramona finds herself in the same situation she once put Grace in.
Before the publication of this novel, there had been some uproar online in regards to the theme of the story and how it could be insinuating that all it takes is “the right guy” to “turn/cure” a lesbian woman into either becoming straight or bisexual.
I can’t make any arguments in regards to this specifically because I don’t identify as either marginalized group and thus I lack the experiences, credibility and authority in this matter. It is not my place to argue. However, it is important to highlight that this is an #ownvoices story, as Julie Murphy publicly identifies as bisexual and has clarified that this story is in fact about the journey of self-discovery, not about the labels themselves.
It seems the original synopsis of the book did a huge disservice not only to the story itself but also to the author, readers and the conversations surrounding it. The author has clarified that this was an issue and the blurb has since been changed.
One of the largest arguments against the narrative in Ramona Blue is that it is impressionist and works as propaganda, especially when targeted towards young adults. The idea is that it normalizes the concept that “Lesbianism” is a phase. The counter argument is that the book actually encourages exploration and that it is okay to question and to not fit into a mold. Refer to the spoilers section below for more info; the main character addresses the idea of the “lesbian phase” several times in the story. Articles written on both arguments will be listed at the end of this review for further consideration.
Again, this is an #ownvoices book; the author, Julie Murphy, is bisexual. This does not mean, however, that her experiences as a bisexual woman are the be all and end all of the discussion. But it also does not make her experiences invalid just because they do not apply to all bisexuals.
Murphy writes about the struggle to understand and accept one’s romantic feelings towards a person, whether they are a woman or a man. Ramona spends some time internalizing whether her identity as a lesbian is more important than the genuine feelings she has developed for her best friend who is a guy. Freddie, the guy in the story, is not a person she has just recently met and fallen for; they do have a history together. This is not a justification for erasure of lesbian voices but it is a valuable factor. Ramona knows that she is attracted to women and that this attraction is not a phase; the feelings for a boy have not and will not change that fact. The book does not ever allude to Ramona ever “turning straight” after being involved with a guy.
What may make the story stand out even more in this narrative of “sexuality exploration” is that it already begins by challenging the status quo. While it is generally accepted and become common in stories to have a seemingly straight character explore their sexuality and later identify as bisexual or gay, it is not as common to see someone who does not identify as “the default” (quote from the book!). In this case, being gay/lesbian, to then identify as bisexual. I can’t and won’t equate those experiences to one another because they are still different; however, I wanted to make sure to clarify how the book portrays this dynamic.
The book also does mention racism but I feel it may have failed this side of the story. It is mentioned once when one of the characters calls out Ramona for “not seeing color.” I thought this scene was incredible and I wish this arc had been further explored. However, the book never acknowledges whether she has learned from this experience or not. I believe the author intended to build on this arc and it felt like they were heading in the right direction, but ultimately this storyline fell flat and was never mentioned again.
I ultimately gave this book a 4/5 stars because while the story is captivating, well-written and dives into a diverse spectrum it still felt like it could have given the reader more. I would have loved to see a deeper look into the racism storyline and how the characters learn from it.
Spoiler-y Notes ahead:
The impression I had of Ramona is that she is not a helpless and impressionable girl being lured by a boy. She fights back and puts people in their place any time they question her sexuality and her choices. Examples:
- Character X asks: “Then how do you know you don’t like guys?” to which Ramona replies: “‘I don’t know, X,’ I say, trying to hide my irritation. ‘How many boys did you kiss before you realized you were straight?'”
- Ramona does not believe identifying as a lesbian thus far in her life was ever a phase, even when she is challenged by her own mother, friends and romantic interests in the story. Scenes where Ramona herself challenges this view of “being a lesbian is/was just a phase” are in the following chapters: 3, 7, 8, 13, 15, 27, 29, and 35. Ramona is also certain that her feelings for Freddie are “not a phase” (actual book quote on chapter 27! Also clarified again on Chapter 29).
- Ramona acknowledges several times to herself/internally that she is confused. She is open to exploring this new relationship because to her, the feelings are more important than how she chooses to label herself or what others may think.
- Ruthie and Hattie both question Ramona’s motives. To both people, Ramona still shows she is certain of her feelings for Freddie, regardless of her sexual preference. In chapter 29, Ruthie and Ramona have a heart to heart on what being with Freddie means to Ramona, and their friendship.
- The story itself ends without any labels or decisions being made. Ramona is content with pursuing a relationship with someone she genuinely loves and not rushing into letting others know where she fits in. This emphasizes the narrative of fluidity and sexual exploration, which the author intended in pursuing in this book.
I don’t know. I haven’t decided what this means except that I like you. I like kissing you and holding your hand and being with you, but I don’t know what that means yet. And that is all I can give you right now. – Ramona to Freddie, chapter 27.
“…I’ve embraced another facet of myself. Life isn’t written in the stars. Fate is ours to open. I choose guys. I choose girls. I choose people. But most of all: I choose.” Ramona, chapter 31.
Again, I would like to reiterate that any and all points I have made and opinions I have shared are my own and I am not an authority in this matter. I am only a reader. If anyone has any thoughts, comments, clarifications, questions, opinions, please feel free to share below! I welcome all respectful discussions and I am eager and open to learn and correct any mistakes I may have made during this review. Thank you!
Sneaky Giveaway: I am more than happy to pass along my ARC copy of Ramona Blue to an LGBTQ+ book blogger and/or booktuber. It does have notes on it because I was preparing for my review, sorry!
Links and Sources:
Below are links with arguments on either side of the spectrum, both from people supporting the story in Ramona Blue and people who do not. The common theme in the links, however, is that they are mostly based on the synopsis alone and not on the entire book/story, since they were mostly posted prior to the book’s release.